Flanders

Judge H. Gibbs Flanders Jr., who was appointed special judge to hear the murder case of three former deputies accused in the death of Eurie Lee Martin in the summer of 2017 in Washington County, made a ruling in the case Monday. His ruling effects the trial date of the case, which was to go before a jury in Washington County Superior Court in Sandersville in two weeks. Flanders also is the judge hearing the SDS case involving Milledgeville City Council and the Baldwin County Board of Commissioners. Billy W. Hobbs/The Union-Recorder

SANDERSVILLE, Ga. - Three former deputies with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office will not be standing trial on murder charges in two weeks as originally scheduled because a judge has granted all of them immunity from prosecution.

The trio are accused in the death of Eurie Lee Martin, a Milledgeville man, who had an encounter with the lawmen on July 7, 2017 that led to him being repeatedly tased by the deputies and subsequently his death.

Now, Middle Judicial Circuit District Attorney Hayward Altman is planning to appeal Flanders’ ruling to the Supreme Court of Georgia.

Reached at his office in Swainsboro on Tuesday morning by The Union-Recorder, Altman said since his office was appealing the decision, it was obvious they disagreed with the judge’s decision.

“We’re actually confident in our appeal,” Altman said. 

Flanders said the three deputies, identified as Henry Lee Copeland, Michael Howell, and Rhett Scott, ruled the tasing of Martin was justified.

“The trial judge must evaluate the evidence from the perspective of an officer at the time and under the circumstances existing at the time in question,” Flanders said in his ruling, a copy of which was obtained Tuesday by The Union-Recorder from Washington County Superior Court Clerk Joy H. Conner. “For the reasons described above, the defendants have shown by a preponderance of the evidence that they were justified in their actions based upon a reasonable belief that the force used in the seizure and arrest of Mr. Martin was reasonably necessary under the circumstances. The defendants’ motion for immunity from prosecution is granted this 22nd day of November, 2019.”

The ruling by Flanders follows a motion hearing heard back in October concerning the Georgia Immunity Statute, similar to stand your ground or a self-defense statute, according to Altman. 

“Both sides produced evidence, and then filed briefs based on what each side believes is the law,” Altman said. “The court then took the factual evidence and briefs.”

And on Monday, Flanders made his ruling, based on the Georgia Immunity Statute.

“The judge ruled that based on that statute that the deputies had immunity,” Altman said.

The district attorney said the ruling was one that is appealable and that he would be appealing the decision of the judge to the Supreme Court of Georgia.

“It’s an appealable order, and we are appealing,” Altman said, noting it was expected to be filed sometime Tuesday or Wednesday. “If the Supreme Court reverses the judge’s order, then the case goes back to the day he entered his order.”

In simple terms, the ruling by the court at this time means that the three men now have immunity from prosecution, he said.

“But it’s subject to the appeal,” Altman said, noting it would not be necessary to re-indict the former deputies if the Supreme Court were to reverse Flanders’ ruling. “It would be like that order never existed if they reversed it.” 

All three men were fired from their jobs as road patrol deputies by Washington County Sheriff Thomas H. Smith before his death in August. At the time, the sheriff said the terminations of the three men was because they violated several departmental procedures.

The men have twice been indicted by grand juries in Washington County. The first indictments were dismissed in 2017 due to a procedural matter. During the second time grand jurors met to consider the case on Aug. 9, 2018, they returned an eight-count indictment against each of the defendants.

The charges included: two counts of felony murder, two counts of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and reckless conduct.

After being tased twice, Martin, who frequently walked from where he lived in Baldwin County to the Deepstep Community of Washington County to visit relatives, was handcuffed and remained on the ground. At the time, he was watched by on-scene deputies, as well as a first responder who went to the scene and awaited with deputies for emergency medical service personnel to arrive.

A short time later, it was discovered that Martin had no pulse and had stopped breathing.

The first responder on the scene immediately began life-saving measures - something he did up until the EMS personnel got there, according to court documents.

Martin later was pronounced dead at the scene.

The late sheriff of the county then ordered an immediate independent investigation, as well as internal investigation surrounding the death, which involved agents with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Eastman’s office.

Under the conclusions of the law, Flanders said the motion to dismiss by defense attorneys was based on OCGA 16-3-24.2, which states in relevant part that a person who uses threats or force in accordance with Code Section 16-3-21 shall be immune from criminal prosecution.

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