Court Overturns Conviction of Former Police Officer Who Fatally Shot Naked Air Force Veteran

Former DeKalb County police officer Robert Olsen
Former DeKalb County police officer Robert Olsen prepares to be processed after his sentencing, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, in Decatur, Ga. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

ATLANTA — An appeals court has overturned the convictions of a former Georgia police officer who shot and killed an unarmed, naked man.

Robert “Chip” Olsen was responding to a call of a naked man behaving erratically at an Atlanta-area apartment complex in March 2015 when he killed 26-year-old Anthony Hill, a black Air Force veteran who’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Olsen, who worked for the DeKalb County Police Department, said he was acting in self-defense.

A jury in 2019 found Olsen guilty of one count of aggravated assault, two counts of violating his oath of office and one count of making a false statement. But jurors found him not guilty on two counts of felony murder. He was sentenced to serve 12 years in prison, followed by eight years of probation.

Prior to trial, Olsen’s lawyers had argued against the DeKalb County Police Department’s use of force policy being submitted as evidence. They said some of its provisions conflicted with Georgia’s self-defense law and that admitting it would confuse the jury.

The trial court was wrong to admit the policy into evidence without identifying and redacting the portions that conflict with Georgia law, state Court of Appeals Judge Brian Rickman wrote in a unanimous opinion Tuesday. That error was compounded, he wrote, when jurors were told the policy could be used “to assess the reasonableness” of Olsen’s using deadly force. The prosecution also said repeatedly during closing arguments that the policy provided the legal standard for determining whether Olsen’s use of force was reasonable.

Georgia law says the use of force that is intended or likely to cause death is justified if a person “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or herself or a third person or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” That law “expressly nullifies any local rules or policies in conflict with its provision,” Rickman wrote.

The DeKalb County police use of force policy instructs that officers “must exhaust every means available of non-lethal force, prior to utilizing deadly force.” It also says, “Any threat used to justify the use of deadly force must be immediate and there must be no other possible remedy.”

Rickman, writing for a three-judge panel, noted that prosecutors can retry Olsen on the aggravated assault charge. But the opinion says the state cannot retry him on the violation of oath counts because those were based on a violation of the use of force policy.

Don Samuel, an attorney for Olsen, 61, said they are “delighted” with the ruling.

“It was clear from the outset of this case that the local police department’s ‘Use of Force Policy’ was not a document that supersedes the state law that governs all cases involving self-defense,” Samuel wrote in an email. “The Court of Appeals was correct in denouncing the prosecution’s use of that county policy instead of state law.”

DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston said she plans to appeal.

“We have worked tirelessly to hold Robert Olsen accountable for the death of Anthony Hill,” Boston said in an emailed statement. “While we respect the Court of Appeals, we wholeheartedly disagree with their decision and will appeal this matter to the Georgia Supreme Court.”

Hill's shooting prompted protests and calls for police accountability. Days after his killing, more than 100 people gathered, expressing hope that his killing would become part of an ongoing national discussion on police interactions with citizens, particularly people of color.

At trial, the apartment complex manager where Hill lived testified that she saw him wearing only shorts and behaving strangely on March 9, 2015. After returning to his apartment briefly, Hill reemerged without clothes. The property manager called 911 three times.

Dispatch told Olsen there was a naked man who was “possibly demented.” Hill was squatting in a roadway when Olsen arrived but jumped up and ran toward the patrol car, witnesses said.

Olsen exited his car and yelled, “Stop! Stop!” Hill didn’t stop and Olsen shot him twice, witnesses said.

Prosecutors told jurors Olsen unreasonably and unnecessarily used deadly force to deal with the unarmed, naked man who was suffering a mental health crisis. Defense attorneys argued Olsen had limited information, feared for his life, had only seconds to make a tough decision and acted in self-defense.

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