The long-awaited murder trial of former DeKalb County police officer Robert “Chip” Olsen is being delayed. After two unsuccessful attempts, court administrators on Wednesday finally found a judge willing to preside over the high-profile case involving an Afghanistan war veteran who was unarmed and naked when he was shot and killed.
The day started with Courtney Johnson becoming the third DeKalb superior court judge in as many days to recuse herself from hearing the Olsen trial. It ended with LaTisha Dear Jackson, in just her second month on the DeKalb bench, accepting the assignment.
Dear Jackson’s staff informed prosecutors and Olsen’s defense team she has a murder trial set for February 25, the date jury selection in Olsen’s trial was scheduled to begin. A new start date has not yet been set, and it’s unclear how long the delay will be.
“These judges keep their calendars pretty full,” some as far ahead as one year, DeKalb Superior Court Clerk Debra DeBerry told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The postponements have taken a toll on the victim’s family. March 9 marks the fourth anniversary of aspiring musician Anthony Hill’s death. The 27-year-old, who battled mental illness after a stint loading bombs onto aircraft in the Kandahar Province, had stripped naked outside his Chamblee apartment — a byproduct of his decision to stop taking medication that came with painful side effects.
DeKalb police were called. Olsen was the first to arrive. He said he shot Hill twice in the chest out of fear for his personal safety. Ten months later, Olsen was indicted for murder, becoming just the second Georgia law enforcement officer in at least five years to face that charge in a shooting death.
The latest news is “frustrating and heart-wrenching,” said Bridget Anderson, Hill’s longtime girlfriend. “We thought we’d at least have the trial started before the four-year anniversary, and to not have that happen is a real punch in the gut.”
Many in Hill’s large, close-knit family, most of whom reside in or near Moncks Corner, South Carolina, a small town outside of Charleston, had scheduled time off from work to attend the trial.
No doubt the wait is agonizing for Olsen, too, who faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison if convicted of murder.
The dizzying chain of events that led to the latest delay began last week, when Judge J.P. Boulee — who presided over the Olsen trial from the beginning — was listed as a sponsor on a flyer distributed by DeKalb District Attorney Sherry Boston. In October, Boulee donated $1,000 to the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence for its fourth annual Love Run 5K. The Feb. 23 event listed Boston as its presenter; Boulee’s donation made him a sponsor.
With Boston’s office prosecuting the Olsen case, Boulee made the decision to step aside, saying judges must disqualify themselves from cases in which their impartiality might reasonably be questioned.
On Tuesday, the case was assigned to Judge Asha Jackson, who announced her recusal that same day. In her order, Jackson wrote her decision was made to “avoid any appearance of impropriety.” She did not elaborate.
Judge Courtney Johnson didn’t even say that much. And she’s not required to, by law.
Decatur attorney Bob Rubin said it’s unusual to have three sudden recusals by judges.
“It’s not unheard of, but I think the judges ought to explain why they can’t sit when a case is assigned to them,” Rubin said. “Explain why that can’t be fair and impartial or can’t appear to be fair and impartial on a particular case.”
Dear Jackson was elected last year to succeed the retiring Daniel Coursey, a 36-year veteran of the DeKalb bench. In 2008, she made history by becoming both the first female and the youngest person to serve as a Municipal Court Judge in the City of Stone Mountain, where she was chief judge at the time of her election to the DeKalb Superior Court. She made more history in 2012 by becoming the first female municipal court judge in Lithonia’s history.
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