In trial, chief deputy, medical examiner give details on stun-gun death

Published: Oct. 15, 2021 at 11:20 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 15, 2021 at 3:27 PM EDT
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SANDERSVILLE, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - As the murder trial continues in the 2017 Washington County stun-gun death of Eurie Martin, the prosecution called its first witness Friday.

Like Thursday, testimony on Friday focused on appropriate use of force by law enforcement officers and other factors that can come into play during encounters with suspects.

Opening statements began Thursday in the murder trial of former deputies Rhett Scott, Michael Howell and Henry Copeland. According to the prosecution, Martin was shocked by two deputies at least 15 times during a four-minute window after the officers were called to the scene to investigate reports of a suspicious person.

Martin’s family says he was walking from Milledgeville to his family in Sandersville and had mental issues.

He died on the scene after being shocked.

On Friday, the prosecution called witness Mark McGraw, chief deputy of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

He said officers get numerous calls each week reporting suspicious people.

Most are non-criminal and often result in a welfare check for the individual. He said deputies must have reasonable suspicion to stop and question someone, and they need even more, such as a identifying a weapon, to make an arrest.

“We have to have a little bit more than they were walking down the roadway,” he testified.

He said that after a Georgia Bureau of Investigation inquiry, the three deputies were fired by order of the sheriff.

McGraw said the deputies broke three policies, including inappropriately using a stun gun.

He also said they “escalated” the situation into something more than a suspicious person.

“All they knew was that someone was waking down the road,” he said, and they had no knowledge of Martin committing any crime.

McGraw also said Copeland violated policy by “not supervising properly” as a supervisor.

Henry "Lee" Copeland, Rhett Scott, and Michael Howell
Henry "Lee" Copeland, Rhett Scott, and Michael Howell(WCTV)

In court on Friday, dash-cam video from the incident was played.

The incident was not visible because it was out of the camera’s view. But deputies commands and Martin being shocked were audible.

Later, the defense cross-examined McGraw, who said all three deputies followed the order of the use-of-force continuum: verbal commands, soft hand techniques, hard hand techniques (fighting), use of spray or stun gun.

He also said that at that time, deputies got one hour of training for dealing with “diminished-capacity” subjects.

Currently, they receive 40 hours of mental health training.

On Friday afternoon, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Medical Examiner Dr. Keith Lehman was on the stand.

He said Martin’s body had puncture wounds consistent with a stun gun, as well as wiring consistent with a stun gun.

He said Martin’s heart was enlarged, which he says is a “significant issue” that put him at risk for irregular heartbeat.

He also said Martin was mildly dehydrated. No alcohol or drugs were in his system.

He said Martin’s death was “initiated by interaction with police.” Martin’s physiological conditions like body temperatuire from walking in the heat, interaction with the officers and history of heart disease and schizophrenia were factors in his death.

One juror was excused during Friday’s proceedings due to medical issues, and an alternate was to step in.

Family, attorneys reflect on case

In Sandersville on Friday, members of Martin’s family and their attorneys held a new conference to reflect on the trial so far. Watch the news conference:

Earlier, family attorney Mawuli Davis of the Davis Bozeman Johnson Law Firm said: “The family is devastated by Mr. Martin’s death. However, after four long years, the family is grateful that the trial of these former Deputies is underway. "

Davis said testimony of witnesses in the trial has presented a compelling case “for the callous disregard for the welfare of Eurie Martin.”

Attorney Francys Johnson of the law firm also issued a statement.

“In a climate where Black men and women are dying in deadly interactions with law enforcement, there must be accountability. Without accountability trust in the system is unfounded,” Johnson said.

“A conviction in this case for Felony Murder would be the first time in Georgia history that law enforcement officers will be held accountable for the murder of a Black person. Maybe just maybe Sandersville will teach America what accountability looks like.”

Earlier in the trial

As the trial got started in earnest on Thursday, both the prosecution and defense explored the choices officers make and the authority they have to do so.

Former deputies Rhett Scott, Michael Howell and Henry Copeland watched as their defense attorneys and the prosecution battled over the actions that led to Martin’s death.

“Mr. Martin changed what was a simple encounter into a situation where deputies are placed into a position by no fault of their own into defending against Mr. Martin’s aggression,” said one defense attorney.

The defense argued deputies did not know or have the expertise to identify that Martin had a mental illness or health issue. They say he committed a felony by not complying with deputies’ orders, giving them the authority to respond with force.

On the other side, the prosecution presented several witness testimonies. At least two were in a truck and recorded video of Martin’s tasing.

“He didn’t understand what they were trying to do. And I started to let the window down one time to tell them. I couldn’t tell he kinda didn’t know. But he wasn’t putting up a fight to me,” said Kelbrick Wiley-Johnson, a witness of Martin’s arrest.

A Washington County chief investigator took the stand to talk about the use-of-force policy. According to the prosecution, Martin was shocked by two deputies at least 15 times during a four-minute window. But Washington County use-of-force policy says only one stun gun should be deployed on a subject at a time.

“To deploy two different tasers on a subject, would that be a reasonable course of action?” said prosecutor Kelly Weathers.

“No, ma’am,” said Trey Burgamy.

Another witness brought by the prosecution said the moments after Martin’s death were incomprehensible, saying one officer kicked Martin’s hood over his face as if he was a dead animal.

As the trial continues, the defense plans to argue why Martin’s mental illness could have been mistaken as intoxication and that his death was an accident.

The prosecution aims to show deputies use of force was an intentionally excessive act that cost Martin his life.

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