In late October, as the tedious process of jury selection continued in the trial of three men charged with murder in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, another trial, with strikingly similar optics, ground to a halt some 200 miles north.
For three days, a Washington County jury had debated whether three former sheriff’s deputies—Henry Lee Copeland, Michael Howell, and Rhett Scott—should be found guilty of murder for the July 2017 tasing death of Eurie Martin in Deepstep, Georgia. The three deputies are white; Martin was Black.
As was the case with Arbery, Martin was unarmed and on foot, passing through a neighborhood not his own.
The circumstances leading to his death started with a simple ask. Caked in sweat, his matted hair speckled with dirt, Martin, who had walked some 20 miles that day, asked a local homeowner for some water. Cyrus Harris denied the request. He would later call 911 to report their encounter, saying he couldn’t tell if Martin was “crazy, drunk, or what.”
“I didn’t like the look of him,” Harris said during testimony.
Rebuffed, Martin kept walking. The 58-year-old was headed to his sister’s home in Sandersville for a birthday celebration.
Howell was the first deputy to respond to the 911 call. He tried to engage Martin but was ignored. Copeland arrived next, in the opposite direction to box Martin in. The two deputies peppered him with questions, ordering him to stop. Martin kept walking.
“I’m not messing with you, man, I’ve done nothing wrong,” Martin told them. GBI investigators concurred, saying Martin had broken no law and was no under no obligation to comply with their demands.
Copeland and Howell weren’t having it. They deployed their stun guns for the first time, shocking Martin for 28 seconds, according to prosecutors.
But Martin refused to submit. He pulled the probes from his body, got up, and resumed his walk.
Scott’s arrival precipitated a second confrontation. Martin, investigators said, was tased for another 86 seconds, with each shot—some 14 in all—containing at least 50,000 volts of electricity, according to prosecutors. The three deputies pinned Martin to the ground. By the time they got up, Martin was no longer moving.
As with Arbery, Martin’s final moments were captured on a civilian’s cell phone and police body cam. Martin can be heard, screaming in anguish, trying to get away. He died, face down in the dry central Georgia clay.
In both trials, video served as the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case, leaving the defense with a difficult task. They had to convince jurors their clients were justified in using lethal force against men who were unarmed and, according to investigators, had committed no crime.
To many who followed Martin’s case, guilty verdicts seemed a mere formality. Many in the civil rights community were optimistic that, unlike so many Black people before him, his death at the hands of white suspects would not go unpunished.
“I was one of those people,” said Quentin Howell, communications director for Washington County’s NAACP and SCLC chapters. “[I thought] this time, they’re not going to get away with it. But there were a lot of people who believed from the very beginning they were going to get off.”
There was reason for Howell to be optimistic. Attorney Francys Johnson, who represents the victim’s family, noted some of the issues that clouded the investigation into Arbery’s death were avoided in Martin’s case.
There were no allegations of a cover-up, such as the accusations that led to a state investigation of former Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson in the Arbery case. State investigators say she directed police not to arrest Travis McMichael, who fired the bullets that killed Arbery. Gregory McMichael, Travis’s father, who led the pursuit of Arbery, was a retired investigator with the DA’s office and had called his former boss seeking counsel.
Though Jackie Johnson was forced to recuse herself, state investigators allege she shepherded the case to a neighboring prosecutor who would later declare that the McMichaels, along with their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, had “solid firsthand probable cause” to stop Arbery, whom they believed was responsible for a series of break-ins in their Satilla Shores subdivision.
But then the video of Arbery’s shooting leaked, setting off a rapid succession of events that would lead to murder charges against the McMichaels and Bryan.
There was no such subterfuge in the Martin case. The three deputies were promptly fired and, following a GBI investigation, indicted for murder.
There was one significant roadblock, however: Superior Court Judge H. Gibbs Flanders, Jr., granted the former lawmen immunity, writing they had 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 Georgia Supreme Court disagreed, ruling unanimously that Flanders’ findings were inconsistent with the law. Justice Charles J. Bethel wrote that the judge “conflated principles regarding the reasonable use of force by law enforcement with self-defense and immunity.”
“Everything went the way it was supposed to until the trial,” said Francys Johnson, who is also a former president of the Georgia NAACP.
Flanders served as presiding judge, which gave Martin’s family pause, their lawyer said. Still, they felt the prosecution had made a strong case, with searing accounts from eyewitnesses’ buttressing the video’s impact.
At that point, Francys Johnson expressed confidence that central Georgia was going to set an example for the rest of the country by holding law enforcement accountable: “We truly have hope that the system will work.”
But by the second day of deliberations, it was clear the jury was deadlocked. Emotions were running high, said one juror who asked to be dismissed. Judge Flanders denied the request, ordering jurors to continue discussions. (It would later be disclosed that one of the jurors was a distant cousin of one of the defendants—too distant, ruled Flanders, to disqualify him.)
On October 26, the judge summoned the jury for a final reckoning. He asked each of the 12 jurors, who were split evenly along racial lines, if they held any hope of a unanimous verdict.
No chance, they said.
A mistrial was declared. The deputies were free to go, though the charges against them remain. Washington County’s first-term district attorney Tripp Fitzner has yet to decide whether he’ll try them again.
“I just don’t understand it,” Helen Martin Gilbert, the victim’s sister, told reporters after the ruling. “I just can’t believe there wasn’t a guilty verdict.”
“I was shocked. Flabbergasted,” Howell said. He had never seen the region’s African American community so engaged on an issue. Now, “there’s a tremendous amount of anger,” he said. “Not too many people get off murdering someone on videotape.”
Few outside central Georgia have likely ever heard about the Martin case. The trial was covered by local media outlets in Macon and Augusta but failed to get much additional traction. Certainly nothing approaching the attention given to Ahmaud Arbery’s death, even though the cases had so much in common.
“All three of these defendants did everything they did based on assumptions,” Linda Dunikoski, the lead prosecutor in the Arbery case, said. “Not on facts, not on evidence. On assumptions. And they made decisions . . . based on those assumptions that took a young man’s life.”
She might as well have been speaking about Martin. There were minor differences. One jogged, the other, walked. Martin was old enough to be 25-year-old Arbery’s father. But their final minutes alive were eerily consistent, fraught with confusion and fear. Each had been chased by a heavily armed trio of middle-aged white men, although it seems likely neither Arbery or Martin would’ve known why. They were outnumbered and on their own.
• • •
Eurie Martin was stubborn. Many men his age are. But few would attempt a 30-mile walk on a hot summer Georgia day.
At the time of his death, Martin resided in a state-run facility in Milledgeville. Schizophrenia robbed him of any sense of normalcy in his life, and he regularly went off his meds, according to relatives. Family was about all he had left, so nothing was going to stop him from walking to his sister’s house to celebrate a birthday.
Martin had walked some 20 miles by the time he reached Deepstep, best known as the birthplace of Elijah Poole, son of preacher man.
Growing up in turn-of-the-20th century Washington County wasn’t easy. For African Americans, it could be deadly. Poole would later tell people he had witnessed three lynchings before he turned 20. Soon after, he migrated with his family to Detroit, where Poole would discover Islam, change his name, and informed by his Southern upbringing, become a leading proponent of racial separatism.
Elijah Muhammad, future leader of the Nation of Islam, made it out of Deepstep. Eurie Martin would not.
“It’s a very hot day. By all accounts, something was wrong with Eurie Martin,” said prosecutor Kelly Weathers. “Yet, without giving him more than one minute to attempt to communicate with this man, they swarmed him, they tased him. He got up, he tried to walk away. They tased him again.”
Susan Steele, who lives in Deepstep with her husband, Lee Curtis Bentley, recalled passing Martin as they returned from a day trip to the Athens Botanical Gardens.
“I wish 1,000 times we had stopped and offered him water and a ride,” Steele, a nurse practitioner, told jurors.
Michael Howell, the first deputy who responded to the 911 call about Martin, testified he had a “bad feeling” about Martin from the beginning of their encounter on Deepstep Road, a two-lane state highway not far from where Martin had asked Harris for water.
“I didn’t know if he was intoxicated, high on drugs,” Howell said. “I just knew it wasn’t right the way he was acting.”
Howell, who was employed as a part-time deputy, cast Martin as the aggressor in his testimony. “When [Martin] went to the right, the Coke can he had in his hand, he threw it to the ground, and he got into a posture, a stance like he was going to fight and he had his fist clenched,” Howell said.
But why did Howell question Martin in the first place? After testifying he had no plans to write a citation, Howell was overheard on dashcam video saying he needed to find something to charge him with. Although the defense would later say Martin had in fact committed a crime—walking on a state road when a shoulder was available—Howell told investigators he had no intention to cite him for that.
Retired GBI Special Agent John Durden, who has instructed countless officers on use of force—including the three deputies on trial—testified that Howell lacked any probable cause to detain or even question Martin. And force is prohibited on a civilian who’s done nothing illegal, Durden said.
Watching from their living room window, Steele and her husband couldn’t believe their eyes. It was “incomprehensible,” Bentley told jurors. The man they had just passed on the highway had been subdued by the deputies.
“We watched them struggling with this guy, and two of the officers get on top of him to hold him down,” Bentley said. “The third guy was in the middle. Then after a while they stopped and stood up.”
“But he was dead. He just laid there,” he testified. “It was, like I said, shocking.”
Martin, he said, was treated no better than a dead animal.
Harold Tuff, who watched the encounter from a nearby truck, disputed the deputies’ claims that Martin had tried to punch or charge at them. He was trying to escape, not fight, Tuff testified.
“Every time they’d shoot him [with tasers], he’d fall and he’d get back up,” he said. “He was constantly moving because they were constantly shooting him.”
With Martin handcuffed and still, the deputies retreated, Steele testified.
“No one checked the man until someone else arrived in a pick-up truck,” she said “They flipped him over, and they started doing CPR on the guy, and the other officers just stood there.”
But they were too late. Martin had suffered a heart attack. He never regained consciousness.
• • •
Francys Johnson has his theories on why Martin’s case was widely ignored and eventually overwhelmed by Arbery’s case. Arbery, he said, was a more telegenic victim, a young man cut down in his prime. Martin’s case also lacked the behind-the-scenes intrigue that helped fuel interest in Arbery’s case, Johnson said. And Arbery’s death came at a time of unprecedented national introspection on issues surrounding race and policing.
“When Eurie Martin was killed, ‘Black Lives Matter’ was not yet an international cry,” he said. “This was before Breonna Taylor, before Ahmaud Arbery. But Eurie Martin’s life mattered every bit as much.”
Johnson tries to remain optimistic even as he acknowledges “a framework of accountability” for law enforcement remains elusive. As his co-counsel, Mawuli Davis, reminded reporters throughout the trial, Georgia juries have yet to convict any white police officers charged with murdering a Black man. (In 2019, a former DeKalb police officer, Robert Olsen, was convicted of one count of aggravated assault, two counts of violating his oath of office, and one count of making a false statement for the fatal shooting of unarmed veteran Anthony Hill. But he was acquitted of felony murder.)
“We’ve come further than we’ve ever come before,” Francys Johnson said. “But we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Watching from afar, Decatur defense attorney Keith Adams said it’s become increasingly difficult to preach faith in a system “when you have police kill a Black man who was doing nothing but walking and still can’t get a guilty verdict.”
That cynicism will only grow if the men accused of killing Arbery are acquitted. That didn’t seem possible back in May 2020, when a Brunswick radio station received a video, shot by Bryan, and posted it online.
Swift condemnation followed from across the political spectrum. Republican Governor Brian Kemp called it “absolutely horrific” and pushed hate crimes legislation long opposed by the state GOP. Protests and vigils were held throughout the country. The GBI took over the investigation and promptly arrested the McMichaels and Bryan. But doubts have begun to surface about whether the defendants will be found guilty by a jury that is made up of all whites and only one Black person.
Then came the request from Bryan’s defense attorney, Kevin Gough, to prohibit civil rights leaders from attending the trial.
“We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here, or other, Jesse Jackson, whoever was in here earlier this week sitting with the victim’s family trying to influence a jury in this case,” Gough said when Rev. Al Sharpton visited the courtroom on November 11. (Jackson later visited the courtroom on November 15, an event Gough also protested.)
Gough was admonished by the judge, and neither Sharpton nor Jackson were banished from the public courtroom. But the lawyer’s remarks serve as a reminder of the outsize role race will inevitably play in the jury’s decision.
“The evidence [against the Brunswick defendants] appears to be obvious, but we’ve learned that a lot of white jurors come with a different perspective,” Adams said.
Even, it appears, when an incident unfolds on video, for all the world to see.