Case shows challenge of prosecuting police
Posted May 18, 2018 12:30 p.m. EDT
ATLANTA -- She waited nearly one year for prosecutors to bring murder charges against the former DeKalb County police officer who fatally shot her son, Afghanistan War veteran Anthony Hill -- unarmed, unclothed and under severe mental duress.
At the time, it was the first indictment of a Georgia law enforcement officer involved in a fatal shooting since at least 2010. Nearly 200 such shootings had occurred in that five-year time frame. Now, more than three years after Hill's death, the case against Robert Olsen is finally moving forward.
"I'm anxious about this, because it is the beginning of the journey," Hill's mother, Carolyn Baylor Giummo, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It's comforting to know that we're almost getting to where we need to be."
On Monday, she'll be in a DeKalb courtroom for a long-delayed immunity hearing and the outcome could send a strong message for future police prosecutions. Officers are rarely charged with excessive use of force; convictions are even rarer. Add a sympathetic victim who was unarmed, shot in broad daylight and the odds would seem to be stacked against Olsen.
"If this case can't be prosecuted it raises the question whether any case against a police officer ever can be," said Atlanta civil rights attorney Mawuli Davis.
But if Olsen is able to convince Superior Court Judge J.P. Boulee that he acted in self-defense, the charges against him could be dismissed, effectively ending the trial before it even starts.
'If you're in trouble, run to the police'
Anthony Hill, 27, was looking for a fresh start when he moved to Atlanta soon after he was medically discharged from the U.S. Air Force in April 2013. He had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorders after "four years, six months and 22 days" in Afghanistan, his mother remembered.
Hill re-entered civilian life to pursue a career as a musician. He fell back on lessons about hard work and discipline he learned from his late grandfather, a well-respected educator and patriarch of a large, close-knit family from Moncks Corner, South Carolina -- a town of about 8,000 people located 33 miles north of Charleston.
"My dad was like a dad to Anthony," Baylor Giummo said. "He'd always tell him, 'Boy, be sensible.'"
But as he followed his dream, Hill was chased by nightmares of his time in combat.
"You have a child coming at you with an assault rifle, with a bomb ... these are things you can't forget," said Kailan Alexander, Hill's former roommate.
For Hill's bipolar disorder, doctors with the Veterans Administration prescribed Lamictal, a drug used to treat mood swings and manic behavior. But Hill's girlfriend Bridget Anderson recalled the drug made a good night's sleep elusive and caused his tongue to swell and jaw to lock.
A week or so before his death, Hill stopped taking the pills. Friends and family believe that is what led him to remove his clothes and parade naked around the courtyard of his Chamblee apartment complex on March 9, 2015.
At one point he jumped from his second-story balcony onto the ground below, crawling on all fours. The apartment manager, who knew Hill to be a model tenant, called 911 seeking medical personnel.
Olsen, in his grand jury testimony, detailed several incidents where police were attacked by suspects under the influence of bath salts or PCP. Two other callers to 911 said they believed Hill was on drugs, although the call was dispatched as a suspicious person.
After watching the scene unfold for several minutes in a marked police car, Olsen got out of the vehicle. Hill noticed the officer and began trotting towards him. Olsen issued multiple commands to stop that Hill ignored, perhaps drawing upon a lesson passed along by his grandfather and relayed to the AJC by Baylor Giummo.
"If you see a fight, run from it. If you're in trouble, run to the police."
Hill had a healthy respect for law enforcement. While in college, he interned with the Moncks County Sheriff's Office, Anderson said.
And just three days before his death -- amid a national debate over police use of force and race following the fatal shooting of a young black man by a white Ferguson, Missouri, officer -- Hill took to Twitter to defend the cops.
"We got in a lot of heated arguments about this," Anderson said. "But he always believed the best about people. He was always spreading positivity."
Prosecutors say Hill, who was African-American, was still nude and had his hands in the air as he moved closer to the white officer, who was armed with pepper spray and a Taser. Olsen claims Hill was running in his direction, but accounts from witnesses and the officer vary.
Clearly, Hill was not armed; the officer also had a height and weight advantage of around three inches and 50 pounds. With only three to five feet separating them, Olsen fired two bullets that landed in Hill's torso.
The veteran officer's testimony at next week's hearing is not a special privilege afforded to police. A statute in Georgia code allows any defendant claiming self-defense to plead their case at a pre-trial hearing.
Defense co-counsel Amanda Clark Palmer said Olsen will tell the same story he's told from the beginning, that Hill refused to obey orders and, believing he was under the influence of drugs, presented a threat of serious injury.
The state alleges Olsen wasn't consistent with his version of events, telling another officer at the scene that Hill had assaulted him, a claim he later recanted.
The defense team has noted that the grand jury who decided to charge the officer were not exposed to witnesses who told police Hill was charging the officer.
"I don't think there's any question he was in reasonable fear of his safety," lead defense attorney Don Samuel said after Olsen's indictment. "Put yourself in his shoes: He's standing alone and there's a naked guy, which is pretty scary in and of itself, charging at you. Witnesses have said he yelled, 'Stop, stop,' and that he backpedaled, but the guy keeps running at him. Just put yourself in his shoes."
Even so, securing the indictment proved more challenging than expected, said former DeKalb District Attorney Robert James. It's said that a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich, but it took James eight hours to return a true bill against Olsen.
"I was dismayed at just how tough it turned out to be," said James, who lost his bid for re-election in 2016 and will not be trying the case. "There are a group of people out there who are willing to give the police a pass no matter what the circumstances."
James said he consulted with several current and former police officers while investigating Olsen and, "to a person they all agreed an indictment was justified."
"It's a case I felt very strongly about," he said. "There's a large segment of the population who have lost faith in the criminal justice system. It's important for the public to see that no one is above the law."
The difficulties involved in charging an officer were evident when prosecutors in South Carolina were unable to get a jury to convict Michael Slager, the white North Charleston patrol officer who sparked national outrage after he shot a fleeing black man, Walter Scott, in the back multiple times, killing him.
"The legal standard is very tough," said Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson, who maintains what's believed to be the nation's most thorough database on police officers charged with on-duty killing.
Since 2005, according to Stinson, there have been 85 non-federal sworn law enforcement officers arrested for murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty, fatal shooting. Of those 85 officers, to date only 32 have been convicted of a crime related to shooting -- 16 plead guilty and the other half were convicted by juries.
Davis said prosecutors everywhere will be closely watching the Olsen case, assuming it gets to trial. If it doesn't, "I think there will be significant outrage," he said.
If there is a trial, Davis cautioned those who believe a conviction is warranted to tamper their expectations.
"There are no slam dunk cases when it comes to prosecuting police," he said. Davis predicted an acquittal would make district attorneys even less likely to bring charges against police, viewing it as an exercise in futility.
Baylor Giummo said she hasn't considered the possibility Olsen will not be convicted.
"If they can just show the people on this jury this could've been their child," she said. "Because you have a badge you shouldn't be able to hide behind it. You took my son. You took my legacy."
Christian Boone writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: cboone(at)ajc.com.
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