By ALAN BLINDERJAN. 7, 2016
DECATUR, Ga. — A prosecutor here said Thursday that he would seek a felony murder indictment against a white police officer who last year shot and killed Anthony Hill, a black man who was naked and unarmed at the time of the fatal encounter.
“Our position is that the facts and the circumstances surrounding the shooting death of Anthony Hill warrant a charge for felony murder,” District Attorney Robert D. James Jr. of DeKalb County said at a news conference.
Mr. James’s decision to pursue a criminal case against Officer Robert Olsen does not guarantee an indictment, in part because Georgia offers law enforcement officers special protections when their on-duty behavior is being reviewed by a grand jury.
Mr. James said that prosecutors would ask grand jurors, when they meet on Jan. 21, to charge Officer Olsen with felony murder, aggravated assault, violation of oath of office and making a false statement.
Officer Olsen could not be reached for comment on Thursday. Neither a lawyer who has represented him, nor the DeKalb County Police Department, immediately responded to messages on Thursday, one day after Mr. James said Officer Olsen was notified of the government’s intention to request an indictment.
Officer Olsen’s conduct has been scrutinized since last March, when he was called to an apartment complex in Chamblee, northeast of Atlanta, and Mr. Hill approached and behaved erratically. Witnesses said that Mr. Hill, whose family said he had post-traumatic stress disorder after an Air Force deployment to Afghanistan, had raised his hands or placed them at his sides and that he did not obey Officer Olsen’s instructions to halt.
In November, Mr. Hill’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in Atlanta’s Federal District Court that accused Officer Olsen of using “illegal and excessive force” against Mr. Hill, 27. That case is pending.
Georgia law allows some public officials, including police officers, to attend meetings where grand jurors hear evidence that could yield an indictment. The law, which supporters say is a vital safeguard for officers who are often required to make immediate judgments in chaotic circumstances, also permits potential defendants to address the grand jury, unrebutted and without cross-examination, at the end of the prosecution’s presentation.
It is not clear whether Officer Olsen will speak to the grand jury this month, but he testified last year when a civil grand jury reviewed the shooting. In October, that panel recommended that officials continue their inquiry.
Lawyers here said that they would not be surprised if Officer Olsen addressed the grand jury, and they said such a choice could be central — perhaps even decisive — to his defense.
“It is going to go in the way of the police 99 times out of 100 if it’s a close call, or not even a close call,” said J. Tom Morgan, a former DeKalb County district attorney who is now in private practice. “It’s got to be very egregious for a police officer to be indicted when they’ve heard from the police officer as a last witness.”
But Lance LoRusso, a defense lawyer who works with the Georgia division of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the laws here afforded officers a crucial opportunity to explain their decisions and experiences, and he said the protections helped to curb potentially overzealous prosecutions.
“It’s a check and balance on the D.A.,” Mr. LoRusso said.
Although Georgia’s legal safeguards for police officers are among the country’s most generous, the state is one of more than a dozen that have enshrined protections for officers whose on-duty actions draw scrutiny. A police officer in Maryland, for instance, may wait 10 days before giving a statement to investigators. In Florida, a police officer has the right to be questioned by a single investigator.
Despite Mr. James’s words of caution about the ultimate authority of the grand jury, Mr. Hill’s girlfriend said Thursday that she welcomed the step toward a possible indictment, particularly at a time when white police officers elsewhere have not been prosecuted in the killings of unarmed black men.
“I’m glad that we have an officer off the streets,” Ms. Anderson said of Officer Olsen, who was placed on administrative leave after the shooting. “He murders people because he’s hiding behind the badge