Immunity Overturned for Indicted Sheriff Deputies
Georgia’s Supreme Court recently overturned immunity granted to three former sheriff’s deputies indicted for Eurie Lee Martin’s murder. The court’s unanimous decision will see the former deputies tried in Washington County for Martin’s murder and other charges.
In a story that has become too familiar, three white law enforcement officers detained a black man after receiving reports of suspicious behavior in an American southern town. The ensuing struggle between the officers and their suspect resulted in death and distrust. Such stories fuel centuries of distrust, poverty, and oppression and further erode the fractured relationship between law enforcement and people of color in America.
In July 2017, Sandersville residents reported an erratic man walking through the streets. Sheriff’s Deputies Henry Lee Copeland, Rhett Scott, and Michael Howell responded to the scene and detained Eurie Lee Martin, a 58-year-old black suffering from mental illness.
Dashcam video and bystander recordings support the deputies’ initial testimony: Martin ignored their repeated instructions and resisted their attempts to detain him. The deputies surrounded Martin, supinated him, and Copeland and Howell repeatedly tased Martin as he struggled to fight off their handcuffs.
Martin later died of asphyxia in handcuffs, facedown on the burning asphalt.
The recordings reveal that Howell and Copeland pressed him to the hot pavement as they fought to cuff only one of Martin’s hands. To cuff his other hand, they tased him at least 11 times. Combined, the sheriff deputies tased Martin for 76 seconds before he went limp. Only then did they manage to cuff his other wrist behind his back.
Medics arrived to find Martin without a pulse. They attempted CPR but could not resuscitate him.
Sheriff Thomas Smith, the supervising officer, fired the deputies involved in October 2017. District Attorney Heyward Altman later indicted the deputies on several charges, including murder.
All three deputies requested immunity granted by Georgia state law which extends to those law enforcement officers seen to be defending themselves or others from harm. Judge H. Gibbs Flanders granted immunity, and Altman appealed the decision, citing the video evidence that contradicted the deputies’ claim of self-defense from a man pinned faced down.
On 2 November 2020, Georgia’s Supreme Court unanimously moved to overturn Judge Flanders’ decision, revoking the deputies’ immunity from prosecution. Justice Charlie Bethel of Georgia writes in his opinion that the immunity was issued despite evidence “plainly established by video and audio recordings” that reveal a reckless deployment of force in Martin’s detainment, arrest, and death.
Ultimately, The Supreme Court’s decision hinged upon the immunity clause cited by the defense and Flanders. The statute — OCGA § 16-3-24.2 — requires those seeking immunity to provide evidence that “force was necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury.” The deputies testified that Martin could have used the open handcuff ringlet as a dangerous and potentially lethal weapon. The Georgia Supreme Court found otherwise after reviewing the dashcam and bystander’s recordings.
Bethel goes on, citing precedent, that the deputies further failed to provide sufficient evidence that Martin could be lawfully detained initially. In his opinion, he remarks that the “defensive stance” and “threatening demeanor” noted by the deputies upon their encounter are not evidence of a crime committed or attempted.
Statutes like OCGA § 16-3-24 are more common than we realize. They are often called “stand your ground” or “no duty to retreat” laws. 35 states have such statues codified in law despite studies from organizations like the RAND Corporation linking the laws to increased homicide rates in those states.
In this instance, we see a too-familiar story end differently but unsurprisingly. The assumption of guilt enforced by historical inequities, once again, reveals a system of laws that, in practice, governs whiteness while policing blackness in America. Despite eye-witness, video, and audio evidence, the State Supreme Court was still convened to decide what is obvious to most of us, including — maybe especially — to those who use the law to defend their flouting of it.