DA to seek murder indictments against 3 Washington County officers

8:19 p.m Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 Local
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
From left: Former deputy Rhett Scott, former deputy Michael Howell and former Sgt. Lee Copeland are the three Washington County officers who could face murder charges in the death of 58-year-old Euree Lee Martin. (Photos courtesy of WJBF-TV)

It was a long walk, some 20 miles from his home in Milledgeville to relatives living in the rural community of Deep Step. But 58-year-old Euree Martin made the trek routinely, without incident.

But on July 7, someone observing Martin just walking down the street thought he was acting suspiciously and called 911. Three Washington County deputies responded and attempted to take him into custody, despite no evidence that Martin had broken any laws, according to the GBI.

Photo courtesy of WJBF-TV
Euree Lee Martin in an undated photo. Martin died after being stunned with Tasers by three Washington County sheriffs officers. 

Video showed the deputies hovering over Martin, deploying their Tasers to get him to submit. After multiple shocks, Martin went into respiratory distress and died.

Now, Heyward Altman, district attorney for Georgia’s Middle Judicial Circuit, says he will seek indictments of the three ex-lawmen on charges including felony murder, involuntary manslaughter, false imprisonment and aggravated assault.

Altman announced his intentions Friday, and the former deputies — Henry L. Copeland, Michael Howell and Rhett Scott — were subsequently fired by Washington County Sheriff Thomas Smith for violating several of the office’s standard operating procedures.

Soon they could join the ranks of only a handful of other Georgia peace officers charged with murder in a use-of-force case since 2010. Former East Point police Sgt. Marcus Eberhart was sentenced to life in prison in 2016 after being convicted of murder in the 2014 Taser death of Gregory Towns. DeKalb County Police Officer Robert Olsen was indicted in January 2016 for the fatal shooting of an unarmed Afghanistan War veteran who was nude at the time. Nine months later, Atlanta Police Officer James R. Burns was charged after a grand jury disputed his claim that he was in danger when he left his patrol car and fired a single shot at an unarmed civilian.

Martin was also unarmed. And, as was the case in the previous murder indictments, neither of which has yet to go to trial, video played a major role in the decision to pursue charges against the Washington County deputies.

Still, Altman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “(It was) one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make in my life.”

He declined to discuss specifics about the case, but said the facts presented to him by the GBI compelled him to act.

Martin’s death sparked outrage in Washington County, located a little more than two hours south of Atlanta near Milledgeville. But even though each of the deputies is white and Martin is black, community activists and lawyers representing the victim’s family were wary of making race an issue.

“We don’t know if it’s a part of it or not,” said Benjamin Dotson, immediate past president of the Washington County NAACP. “What we do know is Euree Martin should still be alive.”

www.accessatlanta.com
A former officer was found guilty of murder for the East Point man's death.

Still, in a county whose population is divided almost evenly among African-Americans and whites, Friday’s developments felt like progress, Dotson said.

“People feel relieved that this is a step toward justice,” he said. “But justice will require the officers be indicted and stand trial. These officers violated their trust. The evidence is not in doubt.”

Altman will make his case to a Washington County grand jury convening Dec. 19.

Martin’s death also underscores the potential lethalness of Tasers. Since 2010, at least 14 people, now including Martin, died following altercations with law enforcement that involved Tasers.

A recent investigation by Reuters found that at least 442 wrongful death suits — all but seven targeting police departments and the municipalities they serve — have been filed over fatalities that followed the use of a Taser. Almost all of those were filed since the stun guns began gaining widespread popularity with police in the early 2000s, according to Retuers.

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