The murder trial of Robert “Chip”Olsen came to a close on Thursday. At the heart of the case rests a single question: Was it reasonable for the former DeKalb County cop to shoot a naked, unarmed man who was advancing on him?
In powerful closing arguments delivered before a packed courtroom, the prosecution said Olsen used excessive force, while Olsen’s attorneys argued their client acted in self-defense.
The jury will begin deliberating Olsen’s fate Friday.
When Olsen was indicted in 2016, it was only the second time in five years that a police officer in Georgia had been charged with shooting and killing a civilian in the line of duty. (The other case was dismissed.)
For Olsen, 57, the stakes couldn’t be higher. He faces murder charges — and a life sentence — for fatally shooting Afghanistan War veteran Anthony Hill at a metro apartment complex in March 2015.
“No one, including police officers, are above the law,” lead prosecutor Pete Johnson said. “We do not live in that kind of police state where people can just shoot people and we just check it off. … Maybe there was a time it was like that. Not here. Not today.”
Olsen was not justified to be in fear of great harm from Hill, who was mentally ill but off his meds, Johnson said. “Can police officers just shoot people with impunity?” he asked. “Is that the world we live in?”
Defense attorney Amanda Clark Palmer told jurors that Olsen was “scared” when Hill kept running at him even though he’d raised his handgun and ordered him to stop. “He feared for his life and his safety,” she said.
“Police officers aren’t perfect and they’re not robots,” she said. “… When Chip Olsen got out of his car that afternoon, he did so because he was trying to do his duty. He wasn’t a bad cop. He was a good cop who had to make a very tough decision.”
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Jurors were given plenty to chew on from both sides. The state tag-teamed its final presentation, with Johnson showing jurors a pathway to a guilty verdict. Getting there does not require them to believe Olsen intended to kill the 26-year-old aspiring music producer, Johnson said.
Olsen “drove into that apartment complex, looked to his left, saw Anthony Hill crouching naked, and stopped the car when he saw him squatting,” Johnson said. “And what’s the first thing Officer Olsen does? He pulls out his gun.”
Assistant DeKalb District Attorney Lance Cross then completed the state’s case with an almost evangelical zeal, telling jurors that, at this pivotal moment, it’s up to them to send a message.
“The conscience of this community will not let this stand,” Cross said.
“You get to do justice,” Cross said. “You get to give a family closure. … That’s why you’re on this jury.”
Referring to the defense’s contention that Olsen flashed his gun to get Hill’s attention, Cross thundered, “That’s gotta change. That can’t be right. Not today. Not in this county. Not in your county!”
It matters, Cross said, that Hill never even got close enough to touch Olsen and now he’s dead.
“That’s got to offend you,” he said.
Following his summation, Cross fought back tears in his eyes as he met with Hill’s mother, girlfriend and other relatives, who have been in the courtroom throughout the five days of testimony.
“It was very emotional for everyone,” said Bridget Anderson, Hill’s longtime girlfriend.
Olsen sat ramrod stiff throughout closing arguments, staring straight ahead, looking impassively. After court was dismissed, Olsen’s wife, Kathy, collapsed into a relative’s arms, quietly sobbing.
Clark Palmer implored the jury to remember the rights of police officers.
“While they’re not above the law, they’re not below the law either,” she said.
But there was scant effort to humanize Olsen. He did not testify in his own defense. Jurors never heard him speak, save for an interview recorded more than four years ago. And there was little eye contact, as the defendant spent most of his time in court sandwiched between his lawyers.
Ultimately, jurors know little more about the married father of a 9-year-old son than they did when the trial began.
Clark Palmer maintained a sober tone throughout her summation, reminding jurors to focus on testimony, not feelings.
“You can’t base your verdict on political leanings,” she said. “You can’t base your verdict on whatever ideology you hold. You can’t base your verdict on other cases around the country. A lot of us would agree that law enforcement across the country seems to have a problem when it comes to dealing with people of color. And I think all of us agree that we want to improve that.”
Clark Palmer told jurors they may not think Olsen should have been a cop and may even think he was a coward. But police officers, she said, have the same right as any member of society to defend themselves when the situation calls for it.
Refocusing on the evidence, Clark Palmer pointed out that each eyewitness who testified at trial gave consistent testimony.
They all agreed Hill was running at Olsen, that he never stopped running at Olsen, except to slow down as he neared the officer, she said. Hill also did not comply with Olsen’s demands that he stop and Olsen was backing up as Hill ran toward him, she said.
No witness bolstered the defense’s case more than maintenance worker Pedro Castillo Flores.
Asked if Olsen had to shoot Hill to stop him, Castillo Flores not only answered yes, he testified that it looked like Hill was “attacking Officer Olsen.” He added that it appeared Hill wanted to challenge Olsen, Clark Palmer said.
The ripple effects of the verdict will resonate throughout the county, prosecutor Cross said as he concluded his rebuttal.
“This case has weight in this community,” Cross said. “You are going to determine what’s OK and what’s not OK, what folks can do and cannot do. You are going to make it so Anthony Hill did not die in vain. You are going to say, ‘Look, that’s enough. Stop. You can’t pull a gun to send a message to someone. You can’t put a bullet into someone who’s unarmed.’ ”
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