Georgia Supreme Court throws out immunity for deputies in Taser death

Unarmed man who died was Black and 3 ex-officers are white

The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday threw out a judge’s decision to grant immunity from prosecution to three former Washington County deputies facing murder charges.

Euree Martin, an unarmed, 58-year-old Black man with schizophrenia, died July 7, 2017, after being stunned repeatedly with Tasers by then-deputies Henry Lee Copeland, Michael Howell and Rhett Scott, all of whom are white.

The unanimous ruling, written by Justice Charles Bethel, pointedly rejected a decision by Superior Court Judge H. Gibbs Flanders to grant the former deputies immunity weeks before their scheduled murder trial late last year.

The justices said they found parts of Flanders' decision puzzling and his conclusions inconsistent. The court told Flanders to heed its instructions and try again.

For his birthday, Martin was walking 25 miles from his group home in Milledgeville to visit his relatives in Sandersville as the heat index topped 100 degrees. When Martin stopped to ask a homeowner on Deepstep Road for a drink of water in his cut-off Coke can, the homeowner refused and called 911.

Howell, the first deputy to arrive at the scene, asked from inside his patrol car for Martin to identify himself. But Martin just kept walking. Copeland, who arrived a few minutes later, told Martin to come to him and get off the road.

Martin responded, “Leave me alone. … I ain’t did nothing wrong,” according to the recording from Copeland’s dashboard camera. The deputies later testified that when they approached Martin, he threw down his soft drink can, clenched his fists and assumed a defensive stance.

Howell then told Copeland to use his Taser on Martin, which he did. After falling to the ground, Martin got up, removed a Taser probe from his arm and continued walking away. At one point, when Copeland neared Martin, Martin took a swing at the deputy, the opinion said.

Deputy Scott, who soon arrived, used a Taser on Martin’s back, causing Martin to fall down. As the deputies tried to handcuff him, Howell and Copeland both used painful “drive stuns” against Martin, the opinion said.

Martin never got back up. He died at the scene.

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In the state Supreme Court opinion, Bethel wrote that Flanders had found the officers “were engaged in a first-tier encounter” when they came upon Martin. In a first tier, officers can ask for ID or question a person so long as they do not detain the person or create an impression the person cannot leave.

A second-tier encounter involves an officer having a reasonable suspicion that a person has or is about to commit a crime. In that case, the officer can detain the person for an investigative stop, and a person’s resistance to that detention is unlawful.

Flanders found that the deputies’ encounter with Martin ratcheted up to a second tier when Martin threw down his Coke can and clenched his fists. That meant the deputies could investigate Martin for possible loitering or walking on a highway, the judge said.

But the state Supreme Court said there was no basis to charge Martin with loitering. And it noted there was video footage showing he was walking close to a side of the road that had no sidewalk. The court also said that even though Martin had assumed a defensive stance, “such behavior would be consistent with his right to decline any contact from the police at that point in the encounter.”

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The high court ruling instructs Flanders to properly decide whether each individual officer used reasonable force against Martin, noting that a Taser can be considered a deadly weapon in certain circumstances.

Because the deputies applied deadly force, Flanders must now decide whether the officers had a reasonable belief that Martin was about to commit a serious crime or was going to use force likely “to cause death or great bodily harm,” the ruling said.