DECATUR, Ga. — Charges should be dismissed against a white former Atlanta-area police officer who shot an unarmed, naked, mentally ill black veteran because grand jury secrecy was violated in the case, the ex-officer’s lawyer argued Friday in court.
Robert Olsen was indicted in January on numerous charges, including felony murder, in the shooting death of 27-year-old Anthony Hill. He pleaded not guilty in June.
During a hearing on Olsen’s motion to dismiss the indictment, defense attorney Don Samuel argued that extra, unnecessary people were in the room during the grand jury proceeding, including multiple people from the district attorney’s office, an expert witness and a court reporter who didn’t transcribe anything but a statement by the officer.
“It was like a circus at times,” Samuel said.
The presence of all those people in the room, especially people from the district attorney’s office, could have inhibited grand jurors from asking questions, Samuel said, though he made it clear that he did not believe anyone was purposely intimidating grand jurors.
Prosecutor Chris Timmons countered that prosecuting a police officer is more complicated than other cases, essentially requiring a mini trial, and therefore extra prosecutors and investigators were necessary to present the evidence quickly and efficiently.
Grand jurors generally aren’t inclined to indict police officers, Timmons said. Additionally, a unique provision in Georgia law that existed at the time of the proceeding in January allowed an officer facing indictment in a use of force case to sit through the grand jury proceeding and to make a statement without being questioned by prosecutors or grand jurors.
If anything, the presence of the officer and his attorneys places pressure on grand jurors as they’re staring at the person they’re being asked to indict, Timmons said.
The law is largely silent on grand jury secrecy in Georgia and there is scant case law, but the process is inherently secret, Samuel said. Having extra people in the room violates that secrecy, he argued.
Timmons said a primary reason for the secrecy is to protect prosecutors and their investigations and witnesses. While state law doesn’t say much about the secrecy, federal law does and the solution to a violation of that secrecy is not to throw out an indictment, Timmons argued.
DeKalb County Superior Court Judge J.P. Boulee said he wanted to do more research on the issue and would not immediately rule on the defense request.
Olsen shot Hill on March 9, 2015, while responding to a call about a naked man behaving erratically outside a suburban Atlanta apartment complex. Hill’s family says he was a U.S. Air Force veteran who struggled with mental health problems.
Olsen has since resigned from the DeKalb County Police Department.
The practice of allowing officers to sit through the grand jury proceeding and make an unchallenged statement at the end, unique to Georgia, has drawn criticism amid increasing scrutiny of police use of force nationwide.
A new law that took effect July 1 limits those special privileges. It says officers can no longer sit in on the entire proceeding. While they may still make a statement to grand jurors, they now must answer questions from prosecutors and grand jurors if they do.