Georgia court ponders charges for deputies in stun gun death

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's Supreme Court is deciding whether three sheriff's deputies should be immune from prosecution in the 2017 death of a Black man who authorities repeatedly shot with a stun gun.

A judge last year ruled that Sgt. Henry Lee Copeland and deputies Michael Howell and Rhett Scott were immune from prosecution after a district attorney charged the former Washington County sheriff's deputies with murder in the death of Eurie Martin, 58.

The judge found the deputies’ use of force against Martin was justified under Georgia’s stand your ground law, which allows for people to defend themselves with violence if they have a reasonable belief they are in bodily danger.

Opponents of the law have been alarmed that the lower court ruling expands the law to cover police officers. In the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, many people have called for limiting officers' immunity.

Martin, who suffered from schizophrenia, had been the subject of a 911 call from a homeowner when he asked for water near the town of Deepstep while on a 30-mile (48-kilometer) walk to see relatives on a sweltering day July day. The three former officers are white.

Prosecutors asked justices during the Thursday hearing to overturn the ruling and let proceed indictments brought by a grand jury for or felony murder, involuntary manslaughter, false imprisonment, aggravated assault, simple assault and reckless conduct, news outlets reported.

Assistant District Attorney Kelly Weathers argued that the officers were never in a position of self-defense in a conflict they started.

“Essentially, were they men under attack?” Weathers asked. “And the state submits that no interpretation of the footage of the last 11 minutes of Martin’s life support that finding.”

Justice Charles Bethel quickly cut off Weathers and began a line of questioning that suggested that at least for Scott, the court may uphold immunity.

Scott was the last of the three officers to encounter Martin, and when he did, Martin had been shot with a stun gun once and was clearly upset. Given Scott’s late arrival, justices asked whether he might have had a reasonable suspicion Martin had been violent with the other officers and that self-defense was justified.

“Although he’s agitated, he’s not overtly aggressive,” Weathers said of Martin at the point at which Deputy Scott arrived on the scene, facts supported by the narrative in the lower court’s ruling. “There is no action of Mr. Martin toward Deputy Scott that threaten Deputy Scott’s personal safety,”

Justices probed beyond the stand-your-ground issue, asking what authority deputies had to detain Martin as he walked on a road with no sidewalk.

Shawn Merzlak, attorney for the former deputies, said the deputies had no reasonable suspicion that Martin had committed any crime before they stopped him. He was simply a “suspicious person” about whom they wanted to know more.

Presiding Justice David Nahmias sharply questioned the stop.

“Officers cannot have kind of generalized suspicion that ‘I don’t know that there’s any crime’ … I mean, they can go talk to a person, but they cannot do any kind of stop or command to stop until it’s a reasonable suspicion of some crime,” Nahmias said.

Merzlak said that by the time the deputies blocked Martin’s path with their patrol cars, he was committing the misdemeanor crime of walking in a public roadway. He added that Martin committed additional crimes by crossing the road and throwing a Coke can on the ground. When Martin took an aggressive posture and balled his hands into fists, Merzlak said that gave the deputies the right to defend themselves.

Martin suffered respiratory arrest and died of an apparent heart attack, authorities have said.