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Former police officer convicted of murder for shooting unarmed black teen

A Dallas County jury on Aug. 28 found a former policeman guilty of murder for using a rifle to kill a black teenager in a car moving away from him in 2017. (Video: Reuters)
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DALLAS — A white former police officer was found guilty of murder Tuesday in the April 2017 shooting of an African American teenager and could face up to life in prison.

Roy Oliver had testified that he was defending his partner when he fired into a car leaving a house party in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs. Jordan Edwards, 15, a freshman honor roll student who was sitting in the front passenger seat, was killed instantly.

The incident became a flash point in North Texas and nationally, reigniting concerns about racism and police brutality. Oliver is the second former officer in Dallas County to be found guilty of murder this year in connection with a civilian’s death.

More than a dozen uniformed police officers lined the walls of the packed courtroom as the verdict was read. The jury, which deliberated for 13 hours, found Oliver guilty of murder but not guilty of two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon by a public servant.

“For an officer to be convicted of murder resulting from an on-duty shooting, the facts of the incident have to be so bizarre that there is no rational explanation for the officer’s actions,” said Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University who tracks police misconduct. “I think that shooting into a car full of teenagers as they slowly drive down the street away from the officer fits that pattern.”

Oliver’s wife sobbed in the front row while embracing his mother. On the other side of the courtroom, friends and family members of Jordan hugged one another as they also cried. Several women quietly said, “God is good.”

The attorney handling a federal civil lawsuit against Oliver, which was on hold while the criminal case was litigated, has said the Edwards family wants him “to be severely punished.”

Oliver and his partner, Tyler Gross, had been dispatched in response to neighbors’ complaints about a party with drunk high school students. But there was no alcohol at the party, and the mood was cordial and even playful, with Oliver and Gross joking with the partygoers.

Things changed quickly, though, when shots rang out from a nearby parking lot — which were later determined to have been fired into the air by gang members. Footage from the officers’ body cameras showed a chaotic scene, with teenagers filling the residential streets. Oliver went to his patrol car and retrieved his service rifle while Gross stopped one car leaving the party and attempted to stop a second car, a Chevrolet Impala driven by Jordan’s stepbrother, Vidal Allen.

Oliver said that as the Impala slowly backed away from Gross, he heard his partner reading the car’s license plate into the radio. Oliver said he took that as an indication that his partner had “keyed in on something.”

Gross walked to the passenger side door of the vehicle and broke the back window as he yelled, “Stop the f------ car.” Oliver then fired five rounds into the car in less than one second. One of the shots struck Jordan — who’d warned the others in the car to “duck, get down” — in the head.

Dressed in a dark suit with a lapel pin for autism to honor his 3-year-old son, Tab, Oliver testified that he’d “had no other option than to use lethal force” and considered Jordan a threat after seeing his silhouette moving in the car. Asked if he would have made the same decision today, Oliver said, “If I had had all of the information? No.”

In a tweet linking to an NBC report about the verdict, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) wrote, “White Texas police officer found guilty of murder for fatally shooting black teen in car. This life should never have been lost.”

The two sides’ experts on use of force saw Oliver’s use of force very differently. Philip Hayden, a Vietnam veteran and retired FBI agent, testified for the state that Oliver had no time to properly assess the risk his partner faced and that shooting into a moving vehicle violated department policy. Jay Coons, a captain with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and a witness for the defense, testified that Oliver’s decision to shoot “at the time was reasonable.”

Although Gross testified that he “didn’t feel like the driver was trying to hit me,” Oliver’s attorneys maintained that he fired to defend Gross.

“Who is Roy Oliver?” asked Jim Lane, a lawyer for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, during the defense’s 45-minute closing argument on Monday. “He wanted to be a protector.”

Oliver, 38, who was raised by a single mother, worked through high school and dropped out during his senior year. He wanted to be a firefighter, but a low test score drove him to seek bonus points given to veterans, he said. He enlisted in the Army, which led to two combat tours in Iraq.

Within days of the shooting, Oliver was fired from Balch Springs, ending his six-year tenure as a licensed peace officer. He’d been disciplined once before, for losing his temper with an assistant district attorney during a trial, an incident that was detailed for jurors.

During Oliver’s trial, the defense called only two witnesses and presented about 30 pieces of evidence, while the state called 26 witnesses and presented about 300 pieces of evidence. Oliver sat stoically throughout the proceedings, as he did during his four hours on the stand.

Prosecutors characterized him as an “angry, out-of-control walking bomb.”

Jordan’s friends and relatives filled the courtroom every day. But there was no outpouring of law enforcement support, despite social media posts by Oliver’s union that “all interested officers are encouraged to attend and show support.”

State District Judge Brandon Birmingham shifted immediately to the punishment phase Tuesday afternoon. Six of Jordan’s high school teachers and his football coach testified, describing him as a model student with a memorable smile who was friends with everyone. His death left a void in Mesquite High School, they said, and his seat in several classrooms was unoccupied for the rest of the semester. The football team wore stickers on their helmets with “JE” in his memory.

“He had the mental grind. He wanted to be great,” said Jeffrey Fleener, the football coach. “It was a constant, daily thing.”