ATLANTA — Georgia’s highest court on Monday found that a lower court was wrong to grant immunity from prosecution to three sheriff’s deputies facing murder charges in a stun gun death dating to July 2017.
The three white Washington County deputies — Henry Lee Copeland, Michael Howell and Rhett Scott — were charged with murder and other crimes in the death of Eurie Lee Martin, a 58-year-old Black man with a history of mental illness.
“We determine that, in granting immunity, the trial court made findings of material fact that were inconsistent with its legal conclusions regarding the deputies’ encounter with Martin,” Georgia Supreme Court Justice Charlie Bethel wrote in the unanimous opinion.
He added that the trial court conflated principles regarding reasonable use of force with self-defense and immunity, made unclear findings of material fact with respect to whether any or all of the deputies used force intended or likely to cause death, and did not address facts pertinent to each deputy individually.
Martin was walking along a road in Deepstep, about 110 miles (175 kilometers) southeast of Atlanta, on a hot afternoon when he walked up a driveway and asked the homeowner for some water by motioning to a cut-off Coke can in his hand, the opinion says. The homeowner refused, concerned by Martin’s unkempt appearance.
As Martin walked away, the homeowner called 911 to report him, saying he didn’t know if Martin was “crazy, drunk, or what.” The homeowner didn’t mention that Martin had asked for water.
Howell was the first deputy to respond. He saw Martin walking and tried to talk with him from his patrol car, the opinion says. Martin asked, “Who are you?” and continued walking.
Howell radioed for backup, turned on his patrol car’s blue lights and followed Martin, the opinion says.
Copeland responded, approaching from the other direction and pulled to the side of the road, blocking Martin’s path. Martin began to cross the road, and Copeland got out of his car and told Martin to “come here” and then to “get out of the road,” the opinion says. Martin told the deputy to leave him alone.
All of that is caught on the dash cameras of the patrol cars. Then the Martin and Copeland walk out of view of the cameras and a few moments later Howell is seen approaching Copeland, the opinion says.
The trial court judge relied on the two deputies’ testimony that Martin threw down the Coke can, took “a defensive stance” and clenched his fists, during the time they were out of view of the camera, the opinion says. Howell then told Copeland to use his stun gun on Martin.
Martin fell to the ground after Copeland shot him with the stun gun but then removed the probe from his arm, stood up and walked away from the deputies, the opinion says. Howell radioed Scott for help, saying they had used the stun gun but Martin was “still fighting.”
When Scott arrived, the three deputies surrounded Martin, and when he didn’t obey their commands to get on the ground, Scott lifted Martins shirt and used his stun gun at close range on Martin’s back, the opinion says. Martin fell to the ground and as they handcuffed him, Howell and Copeland both used stun guns on him, the opinion says.
Once Martin was on the ground, the deputies stopped using their stun guns on him, the opinion says. A first responder who arrived found that Martin had no pulse and began CPR. Martin died at the scene.
The three deputies, who were fired, were indicted in August 2018 on multiple charges including felony murder. They filed a motion for immunity, saying they acted in self-defense. The trial court judge granted that and the state appealed.
The high court sent the case back to the trial court, saying the trial court judge must determine whether Howell’s initial observation gave the deputies reasonable suspicion that Martin was committing the crime of walking on the highway. If so, Bethel wrote, the deputies had authority to detain him but, if not, Martin had the right to resist arrest.
The high court also directed the lower court to evaluate whether it was reasonable for the deputies to use deadly force, in this case a stun gun, against Martin.
The high court also said it was improper for the trial court to grant immunity to the three deputies “collectively,” and instructed the trial court judge to assess each deputy’s immunity claim individually.