Soon after retiring to deliberate, the jurors in the Robert “Chip” Olsen trial took a vote on the two felony murder counts against the former DeKalb County police officer.
It was 9 to 3 in favor of conviction. That would prove to be the closest the seven women and five men came to finding Olsen guilty on the most serious charges against him, the ones that carry a life sentence in prison.
The verdict in the trial — not guilty of felony murder but guilty of four lesser counts — demonstrated yet again the difficulty in prosecuting cops for murder for killing a civilian in the line of duty. In Georgia, there’s been only one guilty verdict in at least 14 years, when data on the topic first started being collected. The officer convicted, former East Point Police Sgt. Marcus Eberhart, used a Taser.
Many figured the Olsen case would change the narrative. Anthony Hill, a 26-year-old Afghanistan War veteran, was naked and off his meds when he was shot dead in broad daylight. Olsen, 57, pulled his gun because, he said, he feared for his safety. But no one else who encountered Hill said they felt threatened by him, even as he was in the throes of a mental health crisis.
And the trial took place in DeKalb, one of Georgia’s most progressive counties. If a police officer was ever going to be convicted of murder, it would be here, the thinking went.
Criminal defense attorney Keith Adams, who has been trying cases in DeKalb for years, said he believed heading into the trial that Olsen would be found guilty on at least one of the felony murder counts.
“This is a big victory (for the defense),” Adams said. “Any time you walk away from a potential life sentence you’ve got to feel good.”
‘Both sides were unhappy’
So what happened? Why did nine of the jurors change their minds?
In interviews, two jurors described how they reached a hard-wrought compromise after 27 hours of deliberations stretching over six days. They asked that their names be withheld to avoid any retribution for the decision in the high-profile trial.
The jury was composed of five blacks and five whites along with one Asian and one Hispanic.
The forewoman, a retired Emory University professor who is white, spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in part, to dispel any notion that the the jury was split along racial lines. But the lone African-American male on the panel — Juror 31 — had a different view.
He said “hearing people in my (jury) saying self-defense was … one of the hardest things that any man of color could endure.”
COMPLETE COVERAGE OF THE CASE
Still, the forewoman said she was pleased with the jury’s decision.
“I realized both sides were unhappy with the verdict and I view that as a sign we did pretty well, frankly,”she said.
Olsen still faces the possibility of spending up to 35 years in prison. Convicted on two counts of violation of oath of office, aggravated assault and making false statements, he’ll be sentenced on Nov. 1 by DeKalb Superior Court Judge LaTisha Dear Jackson.
Her decision could go a long way in determining how this trial is remembered.
“There’s some solace he was convicted of something,” Adams said. “But this is just another reminder how police get the overwhelming benefit of the doubt.”
From 2015 to 2018, according to a Washington Post database, police officers on duty killed nearly 4,000 people. Of those, only 50 officers were formally charged. That’s about 1.25 percent. And less than half of those cases end with convictions.
‘These little lies’
In the jury room, there was a quick consensus that Olsen was guilty of making a false statement to Lyn Anderson, the second officer to arrive at the scene. Anderson testified that when he asked Olsen what happened, Olsen said a rapidly advancing Hill “started pounding” on him before he fired the fatal shots.
The eyewitnesses at the scene said Hill never even touched Olsen. He confirmed as much one week after the shooting when interviewed by GBI agents. Olsen also told them no officer who arrived at the scene asked him what had just transpired.
“I thought it was pretty obvious that he lied,” the forewoman said. “That’s part of the problem. These little lies.”
The jury also fairly quickly found Olsen guilty of two other charges: violating his oath of office, for making that false statement to Anderson, and violating his oath for using excessive force. The forewoman said she felt so confident in those decisions she wrote on the verdict sheet that Olsen was guilty of counts 4, 5 and 6.
Deliberations bogged down on count 3, aggravated assault. Around this time, a male juror, who did not believe Olsen was guilty of murder, threatened to reverse his guilty verdicts on all counts if there was a chance Olsen would be found guilty.
The forewoman said when the jury returned to deliberate on Monday, their sixth day at it, she fully expected discussions to stretch out through the end of another week. Then, suddenly, there was some movement.
In his interview with the news media, Juror 31, a Jamaican-born forklift operator with a new baby at home, said he agreed to vote not guilty on the murder counts if the jury would find Olsen guilty of aggravated assault. The other jurors, including the four other blacks on the panel, signed off on the compromise, but not without some prodding.
Juror 31 said he convinced one holdout that they were left with two options.
“I let her know that we can be part of something that could make a change, or we’re not going to be part of something that makes a change,” he said.
The forewoman said she never thought a unanimous verdict on the murder charges was possible.
“Because it never crossed my mind that entire group where nine people had said guilty all would go to not guilty,” she said. “I thought that was asking a little too much, personally.”
And, truth be told, the forewoman said, there really wasn’t absolute unanimity.
“You probably noticed there were some people crying at the end,” she said, referring to three black women on the jury. They were upset, she said, “because they did not want to vote not guilty so badly it was just breaking their hearts — to have to vote not guilty for murder.”
In the end, “What we did we voted in a way that would assure punishment,” the forewoman said.
Bob Rubin, a Decatur criminal defense attorney, said that, when discussing the trial with other lawyers, virtually all believed Olsen was overcharged.
“This was a classic case of involuntary manslaughter,” Rubin said.
Unlike a murder charge, involuntary manslaughter is imposed when there is no intention of killing another person. Rather, a person’s careless actions resulted in the death of a human being.
An appropriate sentence
In Georgia, jurors are not told what penalties accompany their guilty verdicts. It’s a custom many lawyers say should be abolished.
“Where else in life would you agree to a deal without knowing the consequences?” Rubin asked.
But the forewoman told the AJC jurors knew that if they found Olsen guilty of just one of the felony murder counts, he would spend the rest of his life in prison.
“To me, honestly, a life sentence for that man seemed like vengeance, it didn’t seem like justice,” the forewoman said.
She said a more appropriate sentence in this case would range somewhere between a 20-year sentence, with 15 years in prison followed by five years on probation — the terms of a plea deal rejected by the defense — and the 10-year prison sentence recently imposed against former Dallas cop Amber Guyger.
That sentence triggered protests outside the courtroom, with many activists deriding it as too lenient. Guyger, who is white, said she shot her neighbor, 26-year-old Botham Jean, after thinking she was in her own apartment and believing he was a burglar. Jean was black.
Olsen may end up with a stiffer sentence, even without a murder conviction.
Police accountability on trial
Though many viewed the Olsen trial as something of a referendum on police accountability, Rubin cautioned against drawing any grand conclusions.
“This was not an easy case,” he said.
“These compromise verdicts aren’t satisfying because they don’t speak the truth as to what the jurors really felt,” he added. “They compromise just to end it.”
The forewoman defended the verdict, saying it represented the best solution they could find.
“And I feel like the people on the jury — every single person was completely engaged … there were no villains. It was just people trying to find it come out in a way that made it feel right to them.”
What it means to other cases involving police remains to be seen.
In Washington County, three deputies have been charged with murdering a 58-year-old black man. Eurie Martin died after being Tased repeatedly. The three white deputies claim self-defense and a judge will rule on Oct. 31 whether to grant them immunity. If denied, there are set to stand trial in December.
Former Atlanta police officer James Burns’ murder trial also awaits. Burns shot a man fleeing in a vehicle, then alleged the driver tried to run him over. Dashcam video and eyewitness accounts contradicted Burns’ claim that he acted in self-defense.
And a decision is expected soon from Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard on whether to charge Georgia Tech police officer Tyler Beck with murder for the death of Scout Schultz.
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