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'This story deserves attention': Family Of Black Man Killed By Police In 2017 Speaks
The family of Eurie Lee Martin is optimistic the three former Washington County sheriff’s deputies who killed him in 2017 will go on trial next year, it said in a Tuesday press conference.
That follows an opinion from the Georgia Supreme Court saying a Superior Court judge was wrong in applying the state’s "stand your ground" law when he granted the deputies criminal immunity.
The deputies, Henry Lee Copeland, Rhett Scott and Michael Howell electrocuted Eurie Martin to death with stun gun weapons on a two-lane highway in the town of Deepstep while responding to a 911 call that labeled Martin a “suspcicious person.”
While deputies were all white, Martin was a Black man. For many, that has lifted Martin’s death into the stream of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The finding of immunity came in a pre-trial hearing connected to murder charges in the case and was granted by a superior court judge under Georgia’s "stand your ground" law. That’s the law that gives regular civilians the right to use deadly force should they feel their life is in jeopardy.
However, the high court rejected that ruling, saying the lower court was wrong to conflate the "stand your ground" law with the more relevant law regulating the use of force by a law enforcement officer. That was in accordance with the argument made by both prosecutors and attorneys for Martin’s family.
“And so the ruling from this court completely reversed the decision of the trial court, which sought to bootstrap the traditional immunities that are granted to law enforcement officers, which we call qualified immunity, with the additional immunity benefits of 'Stand Your Ground,' which would have given these officers a super immunity that that goes beyond the bounds of any citizen,” said Francys Johnson, one of two attorneys representing Eurie Martin’s family.
Though the opinion was handed down the day before Election Day, Johnson and fellow attorney Muwali Davis waited until Tuesday, after at least some of the smoke cleared from the election, to respond to it. They appeared with Martin’s family at a press conference in front of the Nathan Deal Justice Center, where the Georgia Supreme Court meets, in Atlanta.
“This story deserves attention and that's why we're here today,” Johnson said. “It deserves attention because across this country, the call for police accountability has been lifted under the phrase 'Black Lives Matter.'”
Johnson and Davis were backed by two of Martin’s sisters and other extended family members while they made their remarks, including Helen Gilbert, Martin’s sister who placed a 911 call in 2017 asking for officers to find and help her brother only minutes after the 911 call that ultimately ended Martin’s life.
Gilbert said she hopes the Georgia Supreme Court opinion changes something she was taught as a child: Some people are allowed to kill without consequence.
“Officers, you know, they think they are above the law and will get away with it,” Gilbert said. “Because they know that they can kill and get away with it and nothing will be done about there will be no justice for them. So I'm glad that things are finally turning around.”
The deputies had testified in court that when they encountered him, Martin was breaking a law regulating where a person can walk in a public roadway. However, that was not supported by any of the video evidence presented in court.
“And we believe that the review of these videos by the Supreme Court, which they were allowed to do, clearly played a part in their decision to reverse the lower court,” Muwali Davis said.
While some cellphone video of the encounter between Martin and the deputies had circulated in 2017, few people have seen the dashcam video collected by the deputies themselves. All of the video is now available to the public.
“This video is the most compelling video I've seen,” attorney Johnson said. "It rivals Ahmaud Aubrey's video and George Floyd's video."
In the eyes of both the lower court and the Georgia Supreme Court, the interaction between the deputies and Martin depicted in the video was what is called a Tier 1 encounter. In such an encounter, the use of force by officers is not seen as appropriate. Plus, the justices said Martin would have been within his rights to run away, or even physically defend himself.
Howell testified that Martin did "bow up" in a threat that he would protect himself. The lower court judge said that was cause enough for the deputies to use force in their own self-defense.
That set up for the justices what they saw as a breach of logic that would somehow have to be resolved by the lower court if immunity for the officers were to stand.
“On remand, the trial court must resolve these inconsistencies and determine whether Deputy Howell’s initial observation of Martin or some action on Martin’s part aside from his 'defensive stance' or 'threatening demeanor' gave the deputies reasonable articulable suspicion that the crime of walking on the highway had occurred or was occurring,” reads the one section of the opinion.
Martin family attorney Francys Johnson agreed the contradiction deserves scrutiny.
“That’s strange logic, that the police can induce the kind of circumstances to which the tier can be elevated is against the case law,” Johnson said “And I think that's where the Supreme Court said you veered off track. The police cannot produce the circumstances that leads to a heightened tier and thereby gain more authority over you.”
The justices remanded the case back to the lower court to look for more evidence that Martin may have been committing a crime. If that evidence came to light, then the deputies were within their authority to stop Martin.
“However, if not, Martin had the legal right to resist any deprivation of his liberty by the deputies,” the justices’ opinion said.
The Georgia Supreme Court also asked the lower court to consider each deputy’s claim to immunity singly and on its own merits rather than collectively as it had in the original decision. For Gilbert, the decision restores some of her faith in the courts.
“I was in doubt about the justice system because a lot of times it does not work,” Gilbert said. “But I was truly grateful at the decision at what the Supreme Court did.”
Attorneys for Martin’s family said they expect criminal trials for the three former Washington County Sheriff’s deputies in early 2021.