A prosecutor argued before the Georgia Supreme Court Thursday that three sheriff’s deputies should make self-defense claims at trial instead of having immunity for the 2017 death of a 58-year-old mentally ill man they came across walking along a Washington County highway.
Middle Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Kelly Weathers said that a judge wrongly stopped the trial of three former Washington County Sheriff’s Office for the killing of Eurie Lee Martin by claiming they were justified in using a stun gun numerous times on Martin while attempting to arrest him.
Shortly before a scheduled November trial, the judge granted Henry Lee Copeland, Michael Howell, and Rhett Scott immunity from prosecution by citing a law granting officers’ immunity if they acted in self-defense when they were attempting to make a lawful arrest.
But Weathers said that the deadly encounter shouldn’t have occurred since Martin had not committed a crime and had a right to walk away from the officers.
While the Supreme Court justices ruling will determine if a trial takes place, the ripple effect will factor into how police officers are held accountable when they kill while on the job.
“The self-defense pretrial immunity statute is available to anyone, a police officer, a citizen, or even a felon, but anyone who seeks that extraordinary protection of pretrial immunity shoulders the same burden,” Weathers said during the virtual hearing. “That’s to show by a preponderance of the evidence that their health and safety were threatened by the imminent unlawful force of an aggressor and we simply do not have that in this case.”
During the hearing, the justices peppered the deputies’ attorney about whether Martin broke any law that justified the deputies following Martin.
On that steamy July 7, Martin, who had schizophrenia, left his group home in Milledgeville to walk to Sandersville. He stopped at a house to ask for some water. The homeowner called 911 to report that he appeared to be inebriated and suspicious.
Howell and Copeland said they approached Martin while he was walking along the highway and that he became confrontational by putting his fists up after he told the deputies to leave him alone.
Dashcam video shows Martin continuing to walk after an initial stun failed to stop him. Deputies caught up with him down the road where within a four minute period, Martin was stunned 15 times before being handcuffed.
Martin was dead by the time the officers turned his body over.
Officers need more than just a hunch to continue pursuing someone they’re suspicious of, Justice David E. Nahmias said during Thursday’s hearing.
“They can go talk to a person, but they cannot do any kind of stop or command to stop until it’s reasonable suspicion of some crime, not just reasonable suspicion that I would like to know more,” he said. “That’s a stop in which a citizen has a right to say ‘go screw yourself, officer, I’m walking away.'”
However, the deputies’ attorney said they had a right to stop Martin because he was walking in the street when they came across him.
They acted in self-defense after Martin threw down a coke can and clenched his fists at them, attorney Shawn Merzlak said.
Several justices also mentioned that Scott might have a different immunity claim than Howell and Copeland.
“Scott’s situation was a little bit different because the only knowledge that he had was that this individual was fighting with officers refusing to comply when he pulled up on the scene,” Merzlak said.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the appeal within five months after a hearing.