Agent: Georgia deputies unjustified in stopping man who died

SANDERSVILLE, Ga. (AP) — A Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent told jurors Monday that a man who died after being stopped by Washington County sheriff’s deputies had not committed a crime and should have been allowed to keep walking.

Local news outlets report John Durden told jurors that then-deputies Henry Lee Copeland, Michael Howell and Rhett Scott were not justified in stopping or detaining Eurie Martin in 2017 in Deepstep, Georgia. The three former deputies, all white, are on trial for the murder of Martin, who was Black, after repeatedly shocking him with stun guns.

“I don’t think there was a crime, enough to stop him for reasonable suspicion,” said Durden, who was admitted as an expert on use-of-force training.

Martin, 58, had been reported as suspicious in a 911 call from a resident of the Washington County town in central Georgia while on a 30-mile (50-kilometer) walk to see relatives on a sweltering July day. Howell and Copeland ordered Martin to stop walking on the roadway, place his hands on his head and lie down.

“Was Eurie Martin constitutionally entitled to keep walking in your opinion?” asked prosecutor Kelly Weathers.

“Yes,” said Durden.

The defense argues Martin was illegally walking in the road and that he took an aggressive stance toward deputies that was not recorded on the video of Martin’s death. During cross-examination, Durden agreed that Martin had crossed the white line from the shoulder into the roadway, based on photos presented by the defense.

Jurors were shown 20 minutes of dashboard camera video of Martin’s arrest, which included Martin’s screams and buzzing from the deputies’ stun guns. The deputies are heard giving Martin commands.

Another GBI agent testified that Scott and Copeland fired their stun guns repeatedly during a four-minute period, administering doses of electricity as long as 19 seconds from Scott and 13 from Copeland. Martin got up and kept walking away after being stunned the first time, and then was stunned a second time.

Jurors also listened to 911 calls from the day of Martin’s death, starting with a resident who told dispatchers that “I got a guy walking off the side of the road here, just walked in my yard. I don’t know where he was crazy, drunk or what.”

Washington County Chief Deputy Mark McGraw testified under questioning from Weathers that deputies were trained to use only “objectively reasonable” force. Prosecutors argue deputies were not in danger and did not need to use force on Martin.

But defense attorney Shawn Merzlak argued the three were following their training, getting McGraw to agree that deputies were trained that a stun gun “is a device that should be used before hard-handed techniques because it is the device that is most likely to get compliance without serious injury to the suspect or the officer.”

Defense lawyers also got witnesses to acknowledge that Washington County deputies are now taught 50 hours of mental health training, while the three deputies on trial did not get that instruction.

The trial is taking place after the Georgia Supreme Court rejected a lower court ruling that the deputies should be immune from prosecution. Senior Judge H. Gibbs Flanders initially found use of force against Martin was justified under Georgia’s stand your ground law. That law allows for people to defend themselves with violence if they have a reasonable belief that they are in bodily danger.

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