Georgia’s Supreme Court on Monday overturned a ruling granting immunity to three former sheriff’s deputies who had been charged with murder over the death of an unarmed and mentally ill black man who had been shot multiple times with a Taser on along a rural road in 2017.
The confrontation between the three Washington County Sheriff’s deputies and the man, Eurie Lee Martin, 58, was captured on a dash cam.
Justice Charles J. Bethel wrote the opinion in the court’s unanimous decision overturning the immunity granted by a Washington County judge shortly before the three MPs were tried. The deputies – Henry Lee Copeland, Michael Howell and Rhett Scott – were fired for violating department procedures by repeatedly charging Mr Martin and failing to provide first aid while he remained unconscious.
Mr. Martin died of asphyxiation at the scene, according to a lawyer for his family.
MPs were indicted in Washington County in August 2018 with murder, manslaughter, false imprisonment, aggravated assault, common assault and reckless driving, but were granted a judge’s immunity citing a law granting immunity to officers if they acted in themselves – defense by making a lawful arrest. The state Supreme Court’s ruling, which returns the case to the lower court, means the three will likely face the charges again.
Lawyers representing the former MPs did not immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did the prosecutor in charge of the case.
On July 7, 2017, Mr. Martin left his home in Milledgeville and walked along Deepstep Road to Sandersville, a journey of about 40 km, to attend a friend’s birthday party, according to Francys Johnson , a lawyer representing the Martin family. Mr Martin suffered from mental illness, Mr Johnson said in an interview, adding that Mr Martin was wary of automobiles and preferred to walk wherever he needed to go, even in the heat of over 100 degrees this that day.
Court documents say Mr Martin stopped at a house en route and asked a man working in the front yard if he could get water to fill a soda can he was carrying. The man refused and called 911 after Mr. Martin left.
Shortly after, Deputy Howell found Mr. Martin walking along the dual carriageway, outside the painted lines, and asked if he was okay. Mr. Martin ignored the deputy and continued walking, so deputy Howell started to follow him in his squad car, called to back up and turned on his car’s blue lights.
Within three minutes, Deputy Copeland approached in his patrol car from the opposite direction and blocked Mr. Martin’s path. Mr. Martin crossed the road to avoid MPs and ignored their requests to speak with them.
According to the state Supreme Court’s ruling, Mr. Martin had not broken any laws and was not required to comply with the orders of Members of Parliament at the time. Shortly after crossing the road, two of the deputies repeatedly fired at Mr. Martin with a Taser, with at least 15 recorded applications of electricity for a duration of 4 minutes 17 seconds, and called Deputy Scott for additional backup.
The three officers pinned Mr. Martin to the ground and handcuffed him, leaving him face down on the ground. Mr Johnson said Mr Martin begged for his life and suffocated before the paramedics arrived, with the sequence of events captured on video by a dash cam.
Mr Johnson, who said he had defended the families of 17 people killed by law enforcement officers in Georgia since 2008, said it was one of the first cases he was aware of when white police officers in Georgia could face trial. for killing a black man.
The only other example he could give was the case of Jacob G. Thompson, a white soldier from the State of Georgia, who faces murder charges for the death of Julian Edward Roosevelt Lewis of Sylvania, Georgia, in August. Mr. Thompson, who was fired, is being held without bail. Mr Johnson also represents the Lewis family.
“There aren’t many examples of white officers being held responsible for misdemeanor and criminal conduct where the victim is black or brunette,” Mr Johnson said. “What is typical is that there are excuses. Any reason is sufficient and justifies taking a black life.
“And it’s absolutely amazing to see a different narrative being written,” he added, “not in a progressive urban area, but in a rural part of Georgia.”
Monday’s Georgia Supreme Court ruling was unusual, Mr Johnson said, in that it dismissed former MPs’ immunity from prosecution claims and again allows them to face charges for the death by M. Martin.
In his opinion on behalf of the tribunal, Justice Bethel wrote: “We determine that in granting the immunity the trial court made findings of material fact which were inconsistent with its legal findings regarding the meeting of MPs with Martin, confusing principles regarding the reasonable use of force by law enforcement with self-defense and immunity, made unclear conclusions on important facts about whether one or all MPs used force intended or likely to cause death, and failed to address the relevant facts for each of the three Members individually. “
He continued, “For these reasons, we overturn the decision of the first instance court and refer the cases for further consideration in accordance with this opinion.