When DeKalb County Police Officer Robert Olsen was charged in January 2016 with killing Afghanistan War veteran Anthony Hill, he became just the fourth officer to be indicted for murder in the state in more than a decade.
Four more cops in Georgia have been charged with murder since Olsen’s indictment. All are expected to stand trial in 2019, starting with Olsen in late February. That’s five officers in total, each of them white, accused of killing unarmed black men.
On the surface it would appear the tide has turned in a state that once effectively afforded cops near-immunity in cases involving excessive force, and in some ways it has. Each of the five officers facing trial in 2019 were indicted under new state grand jury rules that went into effect in 2015. The revised system no longer allows officers to observe the prosecution’s case and then testify without cross-examination, privileges historically available in Georgia only to cops.
“There was a long period where there weren’t any (prosecutions of police officers), so five is worth noting,” said former DeKalb District Attorney Robert James, who secured Olsen’s indictment.
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James said under the old rules it would have been “very, very difficult” to bring a murder charge against Olsen.
“It somewhat leveled the playing field,” he said. “There were some incidents that I thought were wrong, that I was very upset about, but under the laws at the time the officers were protected and there was no way we were going to win those cases.”
Still, indictments remain rare in Georgia and beyond. So far in 2018 only nine officers nationwide have been charged with either murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty shooting, according to Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He has traced police prosecutions dating back to 2005.
(Three of the Georgia officers — Washington County deputies — likely headed to trial in 2019 did not shoot victim Eurie Lee Martin, 58, in July 2017 but instead Tased him to death, prosecutors allege. While Tasing-related deaths do not show up in national statistics, the officers are being charged with felony murder.)
“I’d like to think there would be a small increase, but you’re never gonna see a dramatic increase because the indictments are still very hard to get,” James said.
Convictions are even more difficult to obtain, said Stinson.
He said there have been only 96 non-federal sworn officers arrested for murder or manslaughter resulting from a fatal on-duty shooting in the years since. Contrast that to data showing nearly 1,000 civilian deaths from officer-involved shootings in the U.S. each year since 2015, according to the Washington Post.
A little more than one-third of those 96 officers have been convicted of a crime resulting from the on-duty shooting, according to Stinson.
“It feels like there’s been more prosecutions in recent years but that’s largely because the media is covering these cases as national events,” he said. “Before Michael Brown (shot and killed by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in 2014), these were just local stories.”
Naked and Unarmed
Olsen’s trial is likely to garner some national attention when jury selection gets underway in late February, almost four years to the day after he shot 27-year-old Anthony Hill twice in his midsection outside a Chamblee apartment complex. Olsen claimed self-defense, testifying at an immunity hearing earlier this year that he believed he was about to get “pummeled and pounded” by Hill, who was naked at the time and ignored the officer’s repeated commands to stop.
Judge J.P. Boulee rejected Olsen’s claim of self-defense, citing the defendant’s significant size advantage over Hill, “conflicts in testimony” and the defendant’s credibility as factors.
DeKalb Officer Lyn Anderson, who arrived on the scene moments after the shooting, testified that Olsen claimed Hill had attacked him, though the defendant later acknowledged that never happened.
“No evidence exists that defendant ever believed that Hill was about to kill him, and no witness testified that they thought Hill was capable of killing (Olsen),” he said.
Trial dates have not been set for the other four officers but court officials in Washington and Fulton counties expect them to happen sometime in 2019.
A Request for Water
The case in Washington County, located about halfway between Atlanta and Savannah, started with a request for water on a hot July afternoon.
A GBI investigation had concluded Eurie Martin broke no laws when he was questioned by Deputy Michael Howell, the first to respond to a 911 call from a homeowner who had shooed Martin away in the early evening hours of July 7 after he asked for water. Martin, who suffered from schizophrenia and lived in a group home in Milledgeville, was walking some 20 miles to see relatives in Sandersville for his birthday.
Howell was the first to spot Martin, writing in his incident report that he “pulled alongside the black male with my passenger window down and asked the male subject, ‘Are you OK, and what’s your name. And he looked at me and asked, ‘Who are you?’ and he walked off … toward Sandersville.”
Deputies Henry L. Copeland and Rhett Scott were next on the scene but it’s unclear what prompted any of them them to deploy their Tasers. District Attorney Hayward Altman, who told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he’s confident the deputies will be tried in 2019, said Martin provoked no one.
Cellphone video shot by a passing motorist showed Martin face down on the ground, handcuffed, dying of respiratory distress.
A procedural error forced Altman to re-indict the officers after their first indictment was thrown out.
Benefit of the Doubt?
Former Atlanta Police officer James Burns was re-indicted in September by Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard, one month after charges against the officer were dropped. Self-incriminating testimony from Burns to APD’s internal affairs division had been presented to the initial grand jury; a subsequent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits that.
On June 22, 2016, Burns responded to an off-duty officer’s report of a suspicious person on foot at the Monroe Place apartments. Upon arrival, Burns spotted the driver of a 2011 silver Ford Fusion turn on the headlights and start to drive away.
After failing to block the vehicle with his patrol car, Burns jumped out of his cruiser, yelled “stop” and shot through the passenger side window of the Ford as it sped away.
Deravis Rogers was shot in the head and his car careened down the road before striking a parked vehicle at the Cirque Daiquiri Bar and Grill on Monroe Drive.
He was pronounced dead later that evening at Grady Memorial Hospital.
Burns told investigators that Rogers tried to run him over. Dashcam video and several eyewitnesses told a different story, prosecutors say.
Burns was fired shortly after Rogers’ death. The three-year officer admitted to investigators that he shot into the Ford Fusion without knowing whether the driver was the “suspicious person” police were looking for. His contention that he shot out of fear for his safety was rebutted by APD investigators.
Fulton DA spokesman Chris Hopper said the office is aiming to try Burns next year, perhaps by the summer.
James, the former DeKalb DA, said prosecutors in each of the cases should expect at least one juror willing to give the police the benefit of the doubt “no matter what.”
“It can be very frustrating,” James said. “There’s great political risk, and the odds for conviction aren’t going to be in your favor.”
But convictions are no longer unprecedented in Georgia. In December 2016, a Fulton County jury took only 30 minutes to find former East Point police Sgt. Marcus Eberhart guilty of felony murder for the 2014 Tasing death of 24-year-old Gregory Towns. Eberhart shocked Towns, who was handcuffed, 14 times. Towns was sentenced to life in prison.