The DeKalb County jury deliberated for 27 hours over six days about whether Olsen’s actions in the March 2015 death of 26-year-old Anthony Hill amounted to murder before reaching a compromise. To avoid deadlocking, the jurors acquitted Olsen, 57, of felony murder and convicted him on the rest of the charges, the Associated Press reported.
Speaking anonymously to reporters, one juror said the jury was largely split along racial lines, with most white jurors leaning toward acquittal based on Olsen’s self-defense claim, and most nonwhite jurors supporting a conviction for murder, the AP reported.
“There was only so much I could do. I was disturbed,” Juror 31, who is black, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “At some point in time, just hearing him say self-defense and hearing people in my [jury] saying self-defense was … one of the hardest things that any man of color could endure.”
The unusual verdict capped an emotional 20-day trial, where the difficulties of policing mental illness collided with the racial tension accompanying the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. It comes on the heels of the second-degree murder conviction of former Dallas officer Amber Guyger in the shooting death of Botham Jean in his own apartment, and after the acquittal of another Georgia officer, Zechariah Presley, in the shooting death of a fleeing, unarmed black man named Tony Green. On the same day as the verdict in Olsen’s case, a Fort Worth police officer was also charged with murder after shooting a black woman, Atatiana Jefferson, in her own home.
In closing arguments earlier this month, lead DeKalb County prosecutor Pete Johnson urged jurors to refuse to allow a police officer to kill an unarmed, mentally ill man with impunity, saying, “Maybe there was a time it was like that,” but, “not here. Not today.”
“I know in my heart that this community’s conscience does not say it’s okay to just kill a young man because he’s walking toward you,” added prosecutor Lance Cross. “The conscience of this county will not allow this to stand. It is wrong, and it’s time people say it.”
At the time of his death, Hill was trying to ask for help, prosecutors said.
An Afghanistan War veteran, Hill was discharged from the Air Force on medical grounds in 2013 after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. On the afternoon of March 9, 2015, in the middle of a mental health crisis, he stripped off most of his clothes outside his apartment and began knocking on the leasing office door.
Two maintenance workers encountered him. Hill told them he needed help, that the devil was coming for him and that he loved his mom. He asked at one point, “Where do I live?” Atlanta magazine reported. The workers tried to escort him home, but Hill came back outside, now entirely naked, doing a military crawl on the playground.
One maintenance worker told him the police were on the way.
“Good,” Hill responded. “The police are my friends.”
Those were his last known words, Cross said.
When Olsen arrived and got out of his cruiser, the officer’s gun was already drawn. Defense attorneys argued he was trying to de-escalate the situation, flashing his gun to gain control and send a message, rather than intending to use it.
Prosecutors argued that was an unbelievable claim, saying Olsen failed to take any other nonlethal steps before deciding to shoot Hill, in a clear violation of the DeKalb County Police Department’s excessive force policy. There was no Taser, or baton, or even an attempt to talk to Hill, who had been described over the police radio as mentally ill and naked.
In all of six or seven seconds, Hill was dead.
When Olsen got out, Hill began jogging toward him, witnesses testified, varying in description of Hill’s speed. Olsen yelled “Stop!” twice, and Hill did not stop but slowed to a near-walk, Cross said. Then, Olsen fired.
At the time he struck and killed Hill, the young man was not even within arm’s reach, about six feet away, Cross said.
“A naked man doesn’t pose a threat to a trained cop,” Juror 31 told reporters, the Journal-Constitution reported. “When we call a cop, we expect a cop to de-escalate a situation, not turn to the most deadliest arsenal on his belt. And that’s where he went wrong.”
In the aftermath of the shooting, Olsen tried to “stretch” the facts to make Hill seem threatening, attempting to justify his decision to shoot him, Cross said. Olsen told the second officer to arrive on the scene that Hill attacked him and pounded on his chest. It was a lie, according to witness testimony and bystander video footage.
“Once you lie, it’s hard to believe anything else,” Juror 31 said. “That’s what I was going off — the lies and the lies and the lies. It helped me make my decision a lot more quickly.”
Defense attorneys argued that Olsen was feeling afraid as Hill approached, but prosecutors countered that in all of his interviews with investigators, Olsen never mentioned fear. According to one state investigator who testified, Olsen said he was concerned about having a confrontation — which Cross said was not a reason to kill someone, given that is the everyday nature of policing.
“The basic truth never changes. No matter how much they argue, it never changes — that his first instinct was to shoot. Period,” Cross said. “You don’t pull a gun out to send a message. That’s got to change.”
As the verdict in Olsen’s case was read in court on Monday, two jurors cried and so did Hill’s mother and Olsen’s wife, who wailed “No! No! No!” so loudly she was led out of the courtroom, local news reported. Juror 31 said one black female juror broke down in the jury room upon realizing there would be no murder conviction for Olsen.
DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston said she was disappointed jurors did not convict Olsen of murder, but was pleased he will be held accountable on charges carrying hefty prison time. He was previously staring down life in prison if convicted of murder but now faces up to 35 years if given maximum punishment on the charges of aggravated assault, making false statements and two counts of violating his oath of office.
Olsen, now out on bond, is set to be sentenced Nov. 1.