SANDERSVILLE, Ga. (AP) — Defense experts testifying at the murder trial of three former Georgia sheriff’s deputies deny they used too much force when they repeatedly shocked a man with stun guns before he died.
Prosecutors said Henry Lee Copeland, Michael Howell and Rhett Scott, all white men, had no reason to detain Eurie Martin, a 58-year-old Black man who came to their attention after someone called 911 saying he seemed suspicious.
Martin, who had a history of schizophrenia, was walking through the central Georgia town of Deepstep that sweltering day in July 2017, taking a 30-mile journey to see his relatives.
“My overall impression is that the officers used … reasonable force, but it didn’t start off with force,” Valdosta State University criminal justice professor Darrell Lee Ross testified Tuesday.
The 911 caller said Martin had entered his property asking to fill a soft drink can with water. The deputies said Martin broke the law by stepping into the traffic lane of the road, which doesn’t have sidewalks.
And while much of the encounter was captured on dashcam video, they said Martin took an aggressive stance off-camera and didn’t obey their commands as they struggled to detain him.
Ross testified that officers had reason to detain Martin because there were a lot of “unknowns,” including his behavior and why he was walking down the roadway. Ross noted that Martin pulled out the probes from an officer’s stun gun, got up, and kept walking before he was stunned again.
“That’s unheard of. That would further elevate the deputies’ mindset of alert about safety, about the strength of perhaps Mr. Martin and the mental condition of Mr. Martin and the drugs of Mr. Martin perhaps,” Ross said.
Prosecutors attacked the credibility of Ross, who has testified on behalf of police officers at more than 200 trials, and a second defense expert, Dr. Gary Vilke, noting they get paid for their testimony against misconduct allegations.
Vilke, who teaches emergency medicine at the University of California-San Diego, told jurors he would have been concerned with Martin’s mental and physical health based on his appearance and that he wouldn’t have let Martin leave. Vilke said Martin’s schizophrenia may have been perceived as intoxication from drugs or alcohol.
Whether a stun gun should be considered a deadly weapon has been the subject of repeated contention at the trial.
Vilke testified that he doesn’t consider stun guns to be deadly, offering that he had allowed himself to be shocked with one. He later acknowledged to prosecutors that he endured a single shock that lasted five seconds.
Deputies shocked Martin 15 times in five minutes as they worked to get him in handcuffs, according to earlier witness testimony.
The defense also called an eyewitness, Jasmine Williams, who lives along the road. She testified that she didn’t remember much about the case, but the defense played back her interview with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which was recorded shortly thereafter.
“He wasn’t fighting, but he wasn’t allowing them to handcuff him, either,” Williams said. She said she couldn’t hear Martin from her vantage point, but from his body language he seemed “extremely agitated.”
“The three of them continued to try to talk to him and they surrounded him and he was continuing to be, you know, hollering and he appeared to be not cooperative” she said. “All three of them were on him trying to cuff him. They seemed to be having some issues.”
Williams also told agents that she had called the Washington County sheriff to say his deputies acted appropriately. All three were fired before they were indicted.