For weeks, a group of protesters stood outside the DeKalb County courthouse demanding “justice” for Anthony Hill.
Hill was the 26-year-old Afghanistan War veteran shot to death in 2015 in an apartment parking lot by a DeKalb cop. Hill was naked, unarmed and suffering a mental meltdown when he was killed, and the case was seen as a touchstone regarding how police shootings should be handled in the justice system.
That the officer was white and Hill black cranked up the case profile even more.
The district attorney’s office tried the then ex-cop, Robert “Chip” Olsen, on felony murder charges. But such charges are a tough sell, as jurors are reluctant to impose the most severe criminal charge on cops who kill civilians in the line of duty — although nine of the Olsen jurors wanted to do just that.
Olsen said he felt the approaching naked man was going to harm him.
The racially mixed jury wrestled with the issue and ultimately returned a compromise verdict that found Olsen not guilty of murder, but guilty on charges — including aggravated assault — that could have landed the 57-year-old behind bars for 30 years.
Hill’s family, leaders from the NAACP and many other activists wanted the max. It would send a message, they said. It would make cops think twice about shooting unarmed black men in the future.
When it came time for the sentencing last week, DeKalb prosecutor Pete Johnson, a no-compromise kind of guy, tried to bring the protests inside the courtroom.
“We are not unaware what the community has said,” Johnson told the judge. “The community is asking for the maximum.”
Johnson, who is the equivalent of a heat-seeking missile in the courtroom, wanted to oblige the wishes of the “community.” Or at least use those outcries as a tool.
He asked those in the packed courtroom who were there for Anthony Hill to stand. Most people in the spectator’s section did. Almost all of them were black.
Later, as he came to a close, Johnson got rolling: “This has torn the community. We need to deter other officers here. If a sentence is not appropriate, what message do we send?”
He answered himself, “It says it’s not a big deal. There has to be some accountability here.”
The judge’s duty, Johnson said, was to “restore the faith in this Police Department in the community.”
My notes have him using the word “community” 10 times, although I probably missed a few.
The prosecutor, who wanted a 25-year prison sentence, saved a challenge to the judge for last: “Whether you like it or not, you’re the conscience of this community.”
I said “challenge,” but Johnson’s oratory seemed to lean toward intimidation. It was like he was trying to bully the rookie judge, a young (for a judge) black female, into believing she would somehow be out of step with “the community” if she declined to sentence the ex-cop to the max.
Judges, after all, are elected officials.
DeKalb Superior Court Judge LaTisha Dear Jackson, who was elected last year and has been on the bench for months, showed the neutrality and wisdom of a veteran jurist during the sometimes contentious trial.
When it was finally her turn to speak, Dear Jackson turned to empathy — for the victim’s family, who had waited four and a half years for this day, and for Olsen, who sat stoically during the entire proceeding.
First, she spoke to Hill’s parents, saying they showed fortitude and strength. She noted that his mother, Carolyn Giummo, displayed compassion for the Olsen family, which “is something that is to be desired by everyone.”
Then she said, “Mr. Olsen, I watched you through the whole trial. And what I can say is many thought you were stoic and void of emotion. I think I will take something that your sister said that you’re like an egg with a hard shell and a soft side. Because from the time opening statements started I saw the tears that you had.”
» PHOTOS: Olsen Murder Trial — Verdict Day
The judge said she has family members in law enforcement and those who are war veterans. Such veterans, she said, “sometimes come back different than when they left. And I understand that firsthand.”
She noted that prosecutors offered Olsen a plea deal before the trial, one that would have given him 15 years in prison. But, she added, “A jury of your peers, people of this community, found you guilty of something less than murder. And that’s what I have before me.”
I spoke with Dear Jackson this week. She was the fourth DeKalb judge assigned to this case — three others had tossed aside this hot potato and recused themselves. Before the trial, she told all the parties that she had gone up against prosecutor Johnson in court as a private attorney and that District Attorney Sherry Boston had been her bridesmaid. (This was before they were in their current jobs.) Both prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed the judge could be fair.
» PHOTOS: Olsen Murder Trial Week One
A lawyer of 18 years, Dear Jackson said she used to work as a part-time municipal judge in Stone Mountain, where “small-town politics” sometimes prevails. There, she learned to “make rulings based on what’s inside the courtroom, not outside.”
It’s a lesson she brought to the Big Time, where TV cameras recorded every utterance and national news audiences watched an important case.
Sure, she noticed the cameras. “But you always have a lot of eyes on you” as a judge, she said.
I asked Dear Jackson if she felt any attempt at intimidation with the prosecutor’s constant talk of “the community” and that she was its conscience who needed to send a message.
(Before she answers, let me point out that if there is any conscience in this process, it would be the 12 citizens drafted into civic duty — the jury.)
“I’m not the conscience of the community,” the judge said. “First, you must decide, what community are you talking about. Is it the police community? The African American community? The veterans’ community?
“If it is that, then it is not about the law,” Dear Jackson said. “I’m not ignorant or blind. But you have to be consistent and follow the law.”
In the end, she split the baby and neither side was happy. In a wrenching, emotional struggle like this, if both sides are unhappy then it’s often the case that you’ve made the right call.
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