Ga. Supreme Court tosses aside immunity for deputies in Taser death

    The Georgia Supreme Court overturned a superior court judge’s decision to grant three deputies – Henry Lee Copeland, Rhett Scott and Michael Howell – immunity ahead of their murder trial. At issue is how Georgia’s stand your ground law applies to law enforcement. Grant Blankenship/GPB

    The state’s highest court has rejected a lower court’s decision that granted immunity to deputies who tased a man to death three years ago in Washington County.

    The unanimous opinion released Monday could have implications for how law enforcement officers are held accountable when they kill while on duty. As the Georgia Recorder’s news partner, Georgia Public Broadcasting, reported in August, the case weighs how the state’s “stand your ground law” applies to law enforcement.

    The ruling tosses out a superior court judge’s decision last year to grant three deputies – Henry Lee Copeland, Rhett Scott and Michael Howell – immunity ahead of their murder trial.

    The deputies tased to death Eurie Lee Martin, who had a history mental illness, as he walked the 30 miles from Milledgeville to Sandersville on a hot July day. A homeowner had called 911 after Martin, who was Black, stopped and asked if he could pour water from a spigot into a Coke can he had cut in half.

    A deputy was then dispatched for a “suspicious person” call and tried unsuccessfully to talk to Martin as he continued to walk along the side of Deepstep Road. The deputy then called for backup.

    Deputies instructed Martin to “come here” and “get out of the road.” Martin can be heard on dashboard footage saying, “leave me alone,” “I ain’t messing with you, man” and “I ain’t did nothing.”

    The deputies, who claim they acted in self-defense, said Martin at one point threw down the Coke can, clenched his fists and took a “defensive stance.” As the encounter escalated, Martin took a swing at one of the deputies.

    After he was tased, Martin pulled the Taser probe from his arm and continued walking away. A deputy later pulled up Martin’s shirt and tased him in the back at close range. After Martin fell to the ground, the deputies struggled to pull Martin’s hands behind his back to handcuff him and decided to shock Martin with “drive stuns” from the Taser. The tasing stopped once Martin was handcuffed, but he never recovered.

    The deputies were indicted for felony murder and involuntary manslaughter, false imprisonment, assault and reckless conduct, but the judge granted them immunity before a jury could hear the facts of the case.

    Georgia Supreme Court Justice Charlie Bethel wrote the opinion, sending the case back to the judge with instructions.

    “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, conflated principles regarding the reasonable use of force by law enforcement 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 the facts pertinent to each of the three deputies individually,” Bethel wrote.

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.