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Taser death after asking a stranger for water: Deputy indictments tossed out

A judge on Tuesday threw out an indictment charging three former Washington County deputies in the death of a 58-year-old mentally ill man who had stopped to ask a stranger for water.

Three former Washington County deputies — Michael Howell, Henry L. Copeland and Rhett Scott — were indicted in December on charges of felony murder, false imprisonment and aggravated assault after they tasered Euree Lee Martin and he died. The three deputies were later fired.

RELATED: East Point officers charged in tasing death of handcuffed man

ALSO: City settles lawsuit in tasing death

Superior Court Senior Judge H. Gibbs Flanders Jr. dismissed the indictment because a court reporter was not in the grand jury room to transcribe testimony presented in December.

District Attorney Hayward Altman of the Middle Judicial Circuit said he will present the case to a new grand jury that convenes either the first week of March or the first week of June.

In arguing against the defense attorney’s motion to quash the indictment, Altman said state law gave him discretion as to whether grand jury testimony would be transcribed. He said the defendants enjoyed the same “benefit” of getting a transcription of testimony if they were given copies of statements and evidence in advance of the closed session.

The judge disagreed.

“While the substance of the information in general may be the same, discovery in a criminal case is no substitute,” Flanders wrote.

“It’s just a temporary setback and delay in the case,” Altman said. “We’ll just represent it and go from there.”

Muwali Davis, the attorney for the Martin family, said relatives were confident the three former lawmen would be indicted again and “this process for justice for his family will continue. It’s unfortunate. (But) we believe, ultimately, justice will prevail and the family will get its day in court.”

While the law would allow the three deputies to testify, unchallenged, before a grand jury, the three opted not to appear.

“When a police officer is presented to the grand jury for indictment for conduct which took place during the lawful performance of his/her duties, the law mandates that a court reporter be present in the grand jury proceedings,” said Shawn Merzlak, Howell’s attorney. “Obviously, having raised the issue on behalf of all of the defendants, we firmly believe in the judge’s decision in this matter.”

According to court filings, a court reporter was available for the grand jury session but she was dismissed.

A Georgia Bureau of Investigation concluded Martin had broken no laws when he was questioned by Howell, the first to respond on July 7 to a 911 call about a suspicious person. The call was made after Martin knocked on a homeowner’s door to ask for water.

By the time the first deputy found Martin, a Martin family friend had also called police. The friend said Martin, who had schizophrenia, was walking along the road in the community of Deepstep and that “he couldn’t take care of himself.”

Howell wrote in his report on the encounter, “I pulled alongside the black male with my passenger window down and asked the male subject, ‘Are you OK, and what’s your name?’ And he looked at me and asked, ‘Who are you?’ and he walked off … toward Sandersville.”

There was no account of what happened once Copeland and Scott arrived.

And it’s not clear what prompted the deputies to use their tasers on Martin.

While there are no images of the actual tasing of Martin, images of him face down on the ground, handcuffed and dying of respiratory distress sparked outrage in Washington County. Civil rights activists claimed Martin was killed for “walking while black.”

All three deputies are white.

“We’re very concerned,” said Gerald Griggs, third vice president of the Georgia NAACP. “It’s our hope the district attorney will resubmit the case to the grand jury and an indictment will follow and a conviction will follow and then a stiff prison sentence.”

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