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Former Georgia Sheriff Deputies Denied Immunity in Criminal Case for Taser Death of Unarmed Man

Martin, 58, had a history of mental issues. On July 7, 2017, he was walking 25 miles from his group home with the heat index topping 100 degrees, to visit relatives in Sandersville. Motioning with a cut-off Coke can in his hand, Martin asked a homeowner for water. After the homeowner refused, Martin continued on his way.

The homeowner called 911 and then-deputies Michael Howell and Henry Lee Copeland responded.

Martin told them to leave him alone and that he had not done anything. According to the deputies, Martin walked into the road, threw down the Coke can, and took a ‘‘defensive stance.’’

When Martin allegedly failed to put his hands above his head and get on the ground, Copeland shot Martin with his Taser.

Martin fell to the ground, but he allegedly got up and tried to walk away. Howell radioed for back-up and Deputy Rhett Scott arrived. He was told Martin was hit with the Taser but kept fighting.

Over a 4 minute, 17 second period, the deputies deployed two different Tasers at least 15 times.

They then converged on Martin and rolled him on his stomach and handcuffed him. He was then rolled over and resuscitation efforts were made. Martin, who was unarmed, died at the scene.

The deputies were fired. A Washington County grand jury in August 2018 indicted Howell, Copeland, and Scott for felony murder, involuntary manslaughter, false imprisonment, aggravated assault, simple assault, and reckless conduct. They moved for immunity under Georgia Code Section 16-3-24.2, arguing they acted in self-defense. The trial court granted the motion, and the State appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Under Section 16-3-24.2, a person may use or threaten to use force “based on a reasonable belief that such threat or force was necessary to defend himself or a third person against another’s imminent use of unlawful force.” If force that is likely to cause death or great harm is used, it must also be proven “that the force was necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury at the hands of the alleged victim or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

The Georgia Supreme Court said that Martin taking a defensive stance “would be consistent with his right to decline any contact from the police” when they had no basis that he was involved in criminal activity. The court on November 2, 2020 remanded for the trial court to resolve inconsistencies in the circumstances and type of stop the deputies were engaged in. See: State v. Copeland, 850 S.E.2d 736.

Upon remand, the trial court found the deputies had no reasonable suspicion that Martin was involved in criminal activity. Thus, they should not have ordered him to get on the ground and put his hands above his head. Finding Martin was justified in resisting the attempts to place him under arrest, the court found the deputies were the aggressors and they were not entitled to immunity.

“We’re looking forward to having a trial date being set so that a jury can make a determination as to the responsibility of the persons involved,” said District Attorney Hayward Altman. “That’s what I’ve wanted from day one.” 


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