In 2017, a man named Eurie Martin died after he was tasered by sheriff's deputies in Washington County, Georgia. The case, which is now being considered by the Georgia Supreme Court, could have major implications on policing and the state's Stand Your Ground law. Georgia Today host Steve Fennessy walks through the case with GPB reporter Grant Blankenship.
Georgia Today: Tasing Death Testing 'Stand Your Ground' Defense
Steve Fennessy: This is “Georgia Today.” I'm Steve Fennessy. It's August 14th.
Francys Johnson: We have way too much evidence to doubt otherwise, that Black lives simply don't matter.
Steve Fennessy: Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. These are just some of the names that have become rallying cries during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Today, Grant Blankenship, a reporter with Georgia Public Broadcasting in Macon, discusses a name you may not have heard: Eurie Martin, a black man who died of a heart attack after being tased by Washington County Sheriff's deputies in 2017 while he was walking along a road in rural Georgia.
This week, the case against the three deputies, who were indicted for murder after Martin's death, was argued before the Georgia Supreme Court. At issue, is whether the officers can use Georgia's “Stand Your Ground” law to claim immunity from prosecution. Let's start by talking about Eurie Martin. Who is Eurie Martin?
Grant Blankenship: Eurie Martin, unfortunately to me and my reporting over the years, has been something of an enigma. All I've known about Eurie Martin since 2017 is that he was a man who was trying to get to Sandersville from Milledgeville on foot on the day he died.
Steve Fennessy: That’s a long way.
Grant Blankenship: It's 30 miles. Washington County was originally home for Eurie Martin. He still has family there. And he was going to Sandersville to see some of them, perhaps to celebrate his birthday, I've read in at least one story. So Elizabeth Jordan, she's the reporter at the Sandersville Georgian. That's the weekly newspaper there in town. She has gotten to know Eurie Martin's family over the years.
Elizabeth Jordan: Well, every time that I interview the Martin family, I always ask, can you tell me a little something about Eurie Lee Martin? Some of the things that they've described, the words they’ve used to describe him are gentle giant, a big man with a big heart. Someone that the kids loved. Um, one of the other ones was a MacGyver, and he could fix anything.
Grant Blankenship: Annie Gibbons was Eurie Martin's niece. During a Black Lives Matter March in July in Sandersville, she was one of the speakers. WJBF-TV from Augusta recorded Annie, and she described her uncle as a very giving person.
Annie Gibbons: He was always willing to offer his help and assistance to anyone who needed it. Eurie was very understanding of others’ circumstances. He would often share his food and clothing, including giving the shirt off his back to people who was less fortunate. I still remember Eurie walking to my mother…
Grant Blankenship: What I do know about Eurie Martin is that he, as his sister told 911 on the day that he was killed, he had a history of mental illness.
Helen Gilbert: He is a mental patient, his name is Eurie Martin.
911 Operator: What’s his name?
Helen Gilbert: Eurie Martin.
911 Operator: And he was walking?
Helen Gilbert: He’s in no condition to go out.
911 Operator: And he was walking?
Helen Gilbert: He was walking, he hates standing still.
911 Operator: Where was he last at?
Grant Blankenship: On at least two other occasions, he'd had a run-in with law enforcement who then, just as the day he died, were not aware of whatever mental illness he was experiencing.
Newscaster: Three Washington County deputies, they could be facing murder charges. The district attorney believes the three are responsible for the death of Eurie Martin. Martin was tased to death after walking through a neighborhood in July.
Steve Fennessy: July of 2017. How far into his journey was he before he encountered the deputies?
Grant Blankenship: This was about 20 miles into that 30 mile walk.
Steve Fennessy: So he's 20 miles into this journey. It's a sweltering hot day, and he's in kind of a remote stretch of Georgia. Of rural Georgia. So what happened then?
Grant Blankenship: Well, he sees a house. It's hard to miss, it’s a big house. And he walks up into the yard and he asks the homeowner, Cyrus Harris, for a drink of water from a spigot, you know, like you'd have your hose connect to on the side of your house. And Mr. Harris told him in no uncertain terms -
Harris: I just told him to get out. And he just, and I don’t know where I - I asked him to leave him alive, but I said I don’t know if you’re coming back or not.
Grant Blankenship: Here’s Cyrus Harris in a 911 call on the day that Eurie Martin died.
911 Operator: What he look like?
Cyrus Harris: He was a black man, probably 50+ years old, ‘bout 6’3”, 220. His pants halfway down his back. You know, no, like - underwear half - halfway down to fanny. Just as nasty as he could be.
Grant Blankenship: At that point, Eurie Martin becomes a suspicious person. Sheriff's deputies respond.
Sheriff’s Deputy: Hey, come over here. Come on over here. Come on here. Come here, come here. Get outta road, get outta road, get outta road, get outta road man. Come on.
Eurie Martin: I ain’t messin’ with you man.
Sheriff's Deputy: Get out the road, come on. Come on.
Grant Blankenship: Eurie was a good mile and a half, I mean, deeper into the city limits of Deepstep when the Sheriff's deputies finally found him. They get out of the car, he's walking up the road -
Eurie Martin: No, no, no, no, no.
Sheriff’s Deputy: Come on. Come on, come on. Come on.
[overlapping shouts, unintelligible]
Sheriff’s Deputy: We just wanna talk to you, we just wanna talk to you. We just wanna talk to you. We just wanna talk to you, okay? We just wanna talk to you. We just - I gotta tell you -
Grant Blankenship: At the point of first contact, the first time the Sheriff's deputies meet him - he's tased then, almost immediately upon their encountering him.
Sheriff’s Deputy: Roll over.
[Eurie Martin yelling]
Sheriff’s Deputy: You gonna comply? Put your hands behind your back. Put your hands behind your back now, dammit! Put your hands behind your back!
Steve Fennessy: Almost immediately, you're saying, he was tased. Why was he tased?
Grant Blankenship: Because he wasn't compliant. I mean, that's the argument that the defense attorneys made to the superior court judge in asking for immunity. That the officers had legitimate - a legitimate right to ask him to stop. He was a suspicious person, after all. And - and he didn't stop and tell them what he was doing and why. He was tased then - he was tased for that - pulled the electrical contacts from his body, and then continued up the road.
Steve Fennessy: So the deputies are presumably pretty amped up because they just had a suspect who just tore a barb out of his skin that was sending all kinds of volts through his body.
Grant Blankenship: And in some of the testimony, that you can read and the judge's ruling, one of the officers says, you know, a guy that can do that - I'm not going to mess with them. Right? So they were really, really amped up. By that first experience. But then the subsequent experience. You know, he is in this yard, he's surrounded by three officers now and he has stopped. He asks them, you know, sort of rhetorically, “Isn't this America?” implying that you're abrogating my rights.
Eurie Martin: This is America?
Sheriff’s Deputy #1: You want another round?
Sheriff’s Deputy #2: Get on the ground!
[Eurie Martin yelling]
Sheriff’s Deputy: Get - get on the ground!
Grant Blankenship: At this point, he is incapacitated enough that they're able to get him on the ground, onto his belly, onto his face and to handcuffed his arms behind his body in that position. And that's where he remained until he died.
Steve Fennessy: Do we know how many times he was tased in the course of this encounter?
Grant Blankenship: Yeah, I mean we know that he was tasered for about a minute and a half, um, in total time.
Steve Fennessy: Okay.
Grant Blankenship: Um, over the repeated tasings that he experienced by more than one - more than one deputy in this sixteen - fifteen - sixteen minute encounter.
Newscaster: We have an update tonight on the GBI’s investigation of Eurie Martin's death, the man who was tasered to death while in custody of Washington County deputies. Washington County Sheriff Thomas Smith released a statement just about an hour ago announcing his decision to fire the three deputies who were involved. The GBI released findings that the three officers, deputies Michael Howell, Henry L. Copeland and Rhett Scott violated many of Washington County Sheriff's Office’s standard operating procedures. The termination of the three officers is effective immediately.
Steve Fennessy: So we have three officers who have been fired by the sheriff after the GBI issues a report, and then we also have a decision that needs to be made by the local district attorney. And what is the decision that Hayward Altman makes in this case?
Grant Blankenship: Well, he immediately decides to charge all three of the Sheriff's Deputies with - with murder.
Hayward Altman: Based on my investigation, or my interpretation, of the investigation of the facts presented to me is the most appropriate remedy of this case to present this case to the - to the Grand Jury in Washington County for purposes of criminal indictment.
Steve Fennessy: And so he's presenting the case to the Grand Jury, and the Grand Jury indicts. Right?
Grant Blankenship: Grand Jury indicts. That indictment was tossed. There was a change in law about when you should or shouldn't have a court reporter present in Grand Jury proceedings, and that first indictment got tossed because it got hung up on this then-new law. But Altman goes after these indictments again, second Grand Jury, three murder indictments, second time out. It didn't seem like it was very difficult to secure those indictments.
Steve Fennessy: So he secures the indictments. And so now we have three officers in the state of Georgia, three Sheriff's deputies charged with murder. What is the foundation of their defense?
Grant Blankenship: So they asked for an immunity hearing. Their claim is that they were acting in self-defense when they used force in their confrontation with Eurie Martin. The judge agreed with that.
Steve Fennessy: And the judge in this case who made that ruling is H. Gibbs Flanders, who is a longtime judge with the Dublin Judicial Circuit.
Grant Blankenship: Right. And cited Georgia's “Stand Your Ground” statute, which says that you or I, when we have been the victim of violence, then have a right to respond in kind with violence in self-defense of our person. The judge said that these sheriff's deputies were acting justly underneath that statute. The rub is that, as the judge stated in that ruling, Eurie Martin was not the initial aggressor - was never overtly aggressive or violent. So then you're asking, well, where's the self-defense?
Steve Fennessy: Mhm.
Grant Blankenship: It's in this idea that the Sheriff's deputies had a right to detain Eurie Martin because they thought he was committing a crime. The crimes they said he committed after the fact were loitering and walking in a public roadway. The judge said under suspicion of those crimes he, Mr. Martin needed to stop for the Sheriff's deputies and, when he didn't, apparently that was justification enough to perhaps be treated as the initial act of violence? That's the hazy bit - just where the initial act of violence is that would kick the “Stand Your Ground” ball into gear.
Jim Fleissner: It's a kind of a new trend in self defense.
Grant Blankenship: I talked about what this immunity meant with Mercer University law professor Jim Fleissner.
Jim Fleissner: Instead of making the officers go to trial and argue that they're not guilty because there is a reasonable doubt as to their guilt, what this is, is like a preemptive strike where you make a motion before the trial arguing that, because you were acting in self-defense, that you're immune from prosecution. So there's never a trial.
Steve Fennessy: The judge makes his ruling saying that they're immune. The indictments go away. They are free men. And then Hayward Altmann decides to appeal this decision. Is that right?
Grant Blankenship: Absolutely. Yeah. Altman decides to take this to the Georgia Supreme Court because, as he explains it, this amounts to almost like a carve-out of special rights under “Stand Your Ground” for law enforcement, the way this ruling was crafted.
Hayward Altman: “Stand Your Ground” says that if you feel like your life is threatened, or the life of a third party is threatened, or there’s someone who is destroying their property or taking your property where a life may be threatened, then you can use force necessary to stop that person from taking those actions. What we're saying is that the court expanding that to include an officer and his use of force in making an arrest expands that way beyond what the original statute was intended to be.
Grant Blankenship: It's definitely not a way we could apply this law to ourselves if we're not law enforcement officers.
Steve Fennessy: Right. But the essence of Hayward Altman’s argument and others’ is fascinating in that you can't invoke the “Stand Your Ground” law, he's saying, if you're the one who goes out and incites problems.
Grant Blankenship: I mean, that's how it would be applied to you today. I mean, if you - if you smack somebody upside the head -
Steve Fennessy: Or didn't even physically accosts them, but just started berating them. And then they responded in kind and I - I decided I felt threatened, took out my gun and shot them dead.
Grant Blankenship: Right. Right. And then the burden, the burden in that defense is proving that you had a legitimate - that any reasonable person would have felt that they were physically in danger.
Steve Fennessy: A reasonable person. Right.
Grant Blankenship: Yeah, a reasonable person. It's a sticky wicket. And I mean, there's a reason why the most famous of these is George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, right?
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Grant Blankenship: Because we debated how reasonable his citing of “Stand Your Ground” as the reason for what he did ever was.
Steve Fennessy: I'm sitting here and I'm thinking that it's pretty unique for a district attorney, a prosecutor to be pursuing something like this that police officers could say undermines their ability to do the work that he needs them to do to be a prosecutor.
Grant Blankenship: After that first indictment, I was, of course, waiting for a trial date and, you know, deeply curious as a reporter to know how the trial is going to pan out. We've been doing this for three years and we're certainly not close to a trial, and Hayward Altman’s doggedness here is remarkable.
Hayward Altman: Well, my situation, it was always to do the right thing under the right circumstances. And I've always made that decision. And if I can help the State of Georgia and other prosecutors and other police officers and other victims and the general public to understand what the laws are and how people should behave when affecting those laws, then it's - it's a very, how you say, a heavy burden to carry, but it's one that I'll gladly bear.
Grant Blankenship: And I think that's part of why I've tried to stick with this story throughout, because I felt I needed to know how this all panned out.
Steve Fennessy: The death of Eurie Martin in 2017 got some local coverage, but not much beyond that. Why didn't it? That's when we come back. This is “Georgia Today.”
Steve Fennessy: This is “Georgia Today.” I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm speaking with GPB reporter Grant Blankenship. Eurie Martin's death in 2017 did get some coverage in Middle Georgia. But even though there was video, as there's been in cases like, you know, Rayshard Brooks or George Floyd, the case didn't get much traction outside Middle Georgia and beyond those ensuing months. Grant, why didn't it get more coverage?
Grant Blankenship: So, yeah, Sandersville is only 60, 65 miles away from me and Macon. But I'm - I'm still the parachuting journalist here. So in the years I've been covering the story, I've checked in when I could with Elizabeth Jordan.
Elizabeth Jordan: I am Elizabeth Jordan. I'm the news editor for the Sandersville Georgian. I've worked here for 13 years.
Grant Blankenship: Yeah. Elizabeth says she's actually surprised this case has not gotten more media attention.
Elizabeth Jordan: I will say early on in the - in the very beginning stages of it, some of your local and regional news outlets did pick it up. And, um, I'm not - I can't answer why the national coverage wasn't there. The Washington County community has been very peaceful in their - in voicing their concerns. And it's just been a process.
Steve Fennessey: So Grant, why do you think it hasn't gotten more media attention?
Grant Blankenship: I think you can probably attribute the majority of that to the fact that - that charges were brought quickly. That, again, there wasn't this period of shrugging of shoulders and asking, “what do we do?” That the community, the people who had the power to do something about this, did the thing. They did the things that they could and should have done. Quickly. So that's a piece of it. I also think it was three years ago and, you know, clearly these things that we're experiencing now, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, these were all going on not just three years ago, but for decades and decades and decades and decades. But this issue still had three years to ripen and we're living through the right time. You know, this is when everything is sort of really coming to fluorescence.
Protestors: Say his name! George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd!
Grant Blankenship: If Eurie Martin, were slain today, I think you probably would see his face in murals all over the country.
Steve Fennessey: Eurie Martin's death in 2017 preceded the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, you know, so many other Black people who have ended up dead after encounters with police. Elizabeth Jordan of the Sandersville Georgian says she's seen local demonstrations in Washington County in the last few weeks.
Elizabeth Jordan: There were three marches that took place in the community recently. One following the death of George Floyd and there was a large gathering. Again, it was very peaceful. You had the citizens, the community. You also had law enforcement gather as well in a peaceful way. And then you had another one probably two weeks later, and there was the same situation. The most recent one that we had was dedicated to Eurie Lee Martin and would mark the third anniversary of his in-custody death. Again, all three of them peaceful.
Steve Fennessey: Grant, how long can we expect to wait before there's a decision from the Georgia Supreme Court?
Grant Blankenship: That's - that's really hard to say. But the Hayward Altman, for a lot of reasons, really wants it done quickly.
Hayward Altman: I'm hope - I'm actually hoping to get a quick decision because I am retiring at the end of this term. And I made a promise to the people of Washington County that I would be there for this case. And that's my intention. So I'm hoping to get a quick - a quick turnaround from the Supreme Court so that we can get this into trial before the end of the year.
Steve Fennessey: So depending on what the Supreme Court rules after the hearing yesterday, what kind of impact might that have not just on this case, but on police practices or other cases statewide?
Grant Blankenship: Civil rights activist and attorney Francys Johnson, he represents Eurie Martin's family. Johnson says Georgia has a lot more than just this one trial riding on this immunity appeal.
Francys Johnson: We stand to gain everything when it comes to whether the value of a Black life is - is truly respected in the law. And in Georgia, with very few exceptions, we see that often that life is not as valuable.And so in the broader perspective, that's what we have to gain.
Grant Blankenship: Invoking “Stand Your Ground” laws by law enforcement to get this immunity has been a trend that's been building for two decades now, thereabouts. And should this immunity stand, you know, that's just one more accretion of judicial law that defends that practice. And it would just - it would make it that much easier for the next officer to make this claim in court and have it upheld. If this is overruled, one could see that this would clear the way for murder trials for these three former Sheriff's deputies.
Steve Fennessey: Our thanks to Grant Blankenship, a GPB reporter based in Macon. Yesterday, the Georgia Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case against the three Washington County deputies. Here's Presiding Justice David Nahmias to state's attorney Kelly Weathers.
Justice David Nahmias: If the officers never had any lawful right to even stop Mr. Martin, that may change some of the things that happened later.
Kelly Weathers: The state's position is that there was never reasonable suspicion that Mr. Martin was exercising his right to walk away from a first tier encounter.
Steve Fennessey: Judging by what he said later in the hearing, Justice Nahmias seemed to agree with Weathers.
Justice David Nahmias: I mean, 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.” That's a tier one stop, which a citizen has a right to say, “Go screw yourself, officer. I'm walking away.”
Steve Fennessey: It will be several months before the court issues a ruling as to whether the former deputies should retain immunity from prosecution in connection to the death of Eurie Martin. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is “Georgia Today,” a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcast. Have a story idea? Drop us an email, GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. Our producer is Sean Powers. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.