‘So excruciating': Long wait for verdict continues in Olsen trial

‘So excruciating': Long wait for verdict continues in Olsen trial

Former DeKalb County police officer Robert Olsen, left, and deceased veteran Anthony Hill.

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — Just after noon on Friday, Judge LaTisha Dear Jackson summoned the attorneys in the Robert "Chip" Olsen murder trial to her courtroom. The two families with the most invested in the trial's outcome watched intently, hoping, praying that a verdict was at hand.

On one side sat Carolyn Baylor Giummo, mother of the victim, Anthony Hill, who seeks a guilty verdict and the justice she says it would satisfy.

Seated across the aisle: Kathy Olsen, the defendant's wife. Would her husband be going home with her tonight or be led out in handcuffs?

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The suspense was quickly dispelled, as it has been every time the jury has sent word to the judge. This time, it was a question about their lunch break. The panel of seven women and five men adjourned about three hours later, still searching for a resolution. For the jurors, as well as the families with so much on the line, another agonizing weekend awaits.

"It's so excruciating. You sit there and try to read the tea leaves," said Atlanta criminal defense attorney Jack Martin, no stranger to long deliberations. "What kinds of questions are they asking? How do they appear when they come back to court? Do they look at you or avoid eye contact? You're looking for any sign."

"But when all is said and done, generally speaking, all your guesswork is wrong," Martin said.

Olsen, 57, faces two felony murder charges for shooting Hill, a mentally ill Afghanistan War veteran, in March 2015. The former DeKalb County cop had been dispatched to a Chamblee apartment complex where Hill, 26, had stripped naked in the middle of the day, a byproduct of his decision to stop taking medication.

Unclothed and unarmed, Hill approached the officer — some witnesses said Hill ran, others labeled it a jog. Olsen twice ordered him to stop. Hill kept coming, and Olsen fired two shots that proved fatal.

Was it murder? That's what jurors can't seem to decide after roughly 25 hours of discussion spread over five days.

"I would imagine there's some holdouts on the murder charges, and that's why we're seeing this drag on," said attorney Mawuli Davis, who has represented several families of people killed by police officers.

Davis said a mistrial appears likely, though the jury has indicated they have reached a decision on some of the counts against Olsen. If that remains the case, it would result in a partial mistrial, as the jury is not required to reach a verdict on every charge.

Extended deliberations tend to favor the defense, legal observers say. But not always.

Last year, the jury in the high-profile trial of Claud "Tex" McIver, charged with fatally shooting his wife in the back, deliberated for about 27 hours before finding the Atlanta lawyer guilty of felony murder.

That verdict was a compromise, said jurors, who found McIver not guilty of malice murder. They didn't know the counts carried the same punishment: life in prison.

In Georgia, jurors are not told the sentences that accompany their verdicts. But it's possible someone on the Olsen jury knows the repercussions of a felony murder conviction. Could that be the source of the apparent impasse?

"You're going to have a hard time finding anyone who thinks (Olsen) should spend the rest of his life in prison," said former DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan, now in private practice.

Morgan said he believes the state erred in not giving jurors the option of convicting Olsen of manslaughter.

"I think that would've been an easy compromise," he said.

Instead, it's all or nothing. Such high stakes only raise the pressure on jurors, who on Monday will start their fourth week of service.

"Hard cases make for hard decisions," Atlanta criminal defense attorney Bruce Harvey said. "Clearly the jurors are grappling with how to navigate the legal issues with the ambiguous facts presented to them."

Prosecutors on Friday withdrew their request to impose an Allen charge — alternately known as the "dynamite charge." A judge has discretion to issue such a charge to encourage entrenched jurors to reconsider their position. But it comes with no sanction, and ultimately a juror can decide whatever he or she wants.

This article was written by Christian Boone and Bill Rankin, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.