The vocation of the former DeKalb County officer charged with murdering an unarmed veteran is as irrelevant to the case as the victim’s many admirable qualities, defense co-counsel Don Samuel said Tuesday.
“This is not a police misconduct case,” Samuel said during the second and final day of a pretrial immunity hearing for Robert Olsen. Instead, this case turns on “the right of an individual to act in self-defense, whether he’s in uniform or not,” said Samuel on behalf of Olsen, who fatally shot Anthony Hill in March 2015. The 27-year-old Hill, who fought in Afghanistan, had stripped naked, a reaction to medication he was prescribed to deal with bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders.
The state countered that Olsen couldn’t have acted in self-defense because he was the aggressor.
“The hypothetical (that Samuel) just gave — if someone in this courtroom, someone runs in and runs at them, they’re allowed to shoot and kill them?” prosecutor Lance Cross argued. “That is not the law and that can’t be where we are right now.”
The defense’s interpretation of Georgia’s self-defense laws is far too permissive, he said.
“What if they’re deaf? What if it’s a 17-year-old autistic kid?” Cross asked. “What if it’s a veteran who’s suffering from mental illness and identifies uniforms as help? What if he’s told people, ‘I need help,’ 911 is called, and when a uniform arrives he runs to it for help.”
“You can shoot and kill him, according to Mr. Samuel, according to these so-called experts,” he said. “That is wrong. That is not the law.”
It will be at least two weeks before DeKalb County Superior Court Judge J.P. Boulee rules on whether to grant Olsen immunity. That decision would result in murder charges being dropped against the 56-year-old ex-cop.
“I believed I was about to get pummeled and pounded” by Hill, Olsen testified Monday. He said he had little time (roughly 5 seconds) to act and, with the suspect closing in, he had no option but to use his firearm.
Robert Olsen and Anthony Hill (2018 COX MEDIA GROUP)
Olsen said because Hill was nude he believed Hill was suffering from excited delirium, a condition often cited when defending police accused of excessive use of force. Sufferers are said to be impervious to pain and capable of superhuman strength.
“That defense is ridiculous,” Cross said. “Think about the assumptions Officer Olsen would’ve had to make at the time. He killed someone based on a guess. That was wrong. He had no evidence for it. That’s not reasonable.”
A defense use of force expert who testified Tuesday disagreed. Citing Olsen’s “limited reaction time,” Darrell Ross, a sociology and criminal justice professor at Valdosta State, said an “intermediate weapon” such as a baton or Taser would not have provided adequate protection.
Revisiting a question the state posed throughout the two-day hearing, Ross was asked what distance does an unarmed man have to be before it’s appropriate to shoot him — 5, 6, 7 feet?
“Possibly,” Ross stated, citing self-defense.
Prosecutors criticized Ross for relying solely on Olsen’s account of the shooting. Olsen said that when Hill was approaching him, the younger man’s hands were not up in a surrender position. On Monday, witness Pedro Castillo testified that Hill’s hands were stretched out, waist-high as he approached the officer.
But in his deposition, Castillo told investigators he empathized with Olsen.
“If I was in (Olsen’s) place, I would’ve thought (Hill) would, you know, do something to me,” Castillo said. “I thought he was going to do something to the policeman.”
Former DeKalb County Police Officer Robert Olsen (center) talks with his defense team — including co-counsel Don Samuel (right) — during a morning break in Olsen’s pretrial immunity hearing at the DeKalb County Superior Court in Decatur, Ga., on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)
Samuel said his client is being victimized by Monday-morning quarterbacks who’ve placed an unfair burden on an officer “confronted with serious bodily harm.”
“It is unfair to Robert Olsen to say shooting a war hero was not justified,” Samuel said. “That shooting someone with a mental illness is not justified.
“He didn’t have the time. He wasn’t given the opportunity. He didn’t have the information ahead of time,” the defense attorney continued. “There’s no law that says you have to do that. It may be good policy.”
And then, in a dig at the DeKalb County Police Department, Samuel suggested that one hour of use-of-force training was insufficient. “Maybe they should train their officers better,” he said.
It was the testimony of a fellow officer that could prove most problematic to Olsen. Lyn Anderson, arriving as backup at the Chamblee Heights apartment complex moments after the shooting, said Monday that Olsen justified lethal force by claiming Hill had been “pounding on him.” Olsen said he did not remember that conversation.
“That makes Robert Olsen not credible,” Cross said.