This post has been updated.
DALLAS — A former Texas police officer who last year killed an unarmed black teenager — a passenger in a car leaving a house party — went on trial Thursday for murder.
The fatal shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards by Roy Oliver, who is white, quickly became yet another flash point in the national debate over law enforcement and use of force. The high school freshman was one of the youngest people killed by police in 2017.
Despite defense attorneys’ last-minute attempt to halt the trial, the case began uneventfully in a Dallas County courtroom. The 38-year-old Oliver, a former patrol officer in the suburb of Balch Springs, claims he fired to protect his partner. Police initially said the car in which the teen, his stepbrother and three friends were riding reversed “aggressively” toward the officers but later acknowledged that body camera video showed the opposite.
In his opening statement, prosecutor Mike Snipes called Edwards “an innocent child doing nothing wrong that night.” His stepmother, the first witness, described him as her “TV buddy.” She added tearfully, “Nobody else would watch Lifetime with me.”
Oliver was fired three days after the youth’s death, with officials saying the six-year veteran had violated several department policies. His partner testified Thursday that he had not felt he was in danger.
While it is highly unusual for law enforcement officers to be indicted in shootings of civilians, much less to be convicted in such cases, Oliver is one of four former police officers indicted in Dallas County last year and the second to stand trial.
In January, former Farmers Branch officer Ken Johnson was found guilty of murder and aggravated assault and sentenced to 10 years in prison for shooting two 16-year-olds, one of whom was killed. Johnson was off-duty and in regular clothes when he caught the teens breaking into his personal vehicle in 2016. The pair drove away with him in pursuit. After a short chase, Johnson rammed the other vehicle, got out of his SUV and fired 16 times.
And in September, former Mesquite police officer Derick Wiley is scheduled to go on trial in connection with a shooting last fall that injured a man trying to unlock his own truck. Wiley had been responding to a report of a possible car burglary.
Oliver’s trial is expected to last at least a week. He faces one charge of murder and two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
The night of the shooting, Edwards, his stepbrother and friends had been at a large party, one advertised to all five area high schools on Snapchat. His group left as police arrived in response to a 911 call about intoxicated students.
After talking to the teen hosting the party, the officers heard a dozen gunshots, which later were found to have come from a nearby parking lot. Chaos filled the street, and Edwards’ stepbrother started to back his car up to get out, according to the prosecutor. Oliver ran toward the vehicle as his partner tried to get it to stop.
As a “heroic last act,” Snipes told the jury, Edwards yelled at the others in the car to “duck, get down.” Oliver fired five shots, striking Edwards in the head and killing him instantly.
The episode sparked outrage in North Texas and attracted national attention — which testimony from Oliver’s partner could reignite.
During his hour-long appearance on the stand, Officer Tyler Gross said he had used his gun to hit one of the car’s window, breaking the glass. Then he heard shots, turned and saw smoke coming from Oliver’s gun.
“I just wanted them to stop,” Gross said of the teens. He was not scared and did not feel the need to fire his own weapon: “I was not in fear at that point,” Gross testified.
The defense team opted to hold its opening statements for later in the trial. In June, it unsuccessfully sought to change the venue, contending that media coverage of the case has been “pervasive, prejudicial and inflammatory.” A photo of Oliver in a jail uniform has often accompanied stories — a point of concern, he wrote in an affidavit.
Daryl Washington, an attorney for the Edwards family, said Tuesday that they are “ready to get things going, and ready to get the pursuit of justice started. It’s extremely tough, because these are wounds that are being reopened. The family has to relive this nightmare all over again.”
A federal civil lawsuit the family filed against Oliver and the city of Balch Springs is on hold while the criminal case proceeds.
The killing of a juvenile by law enforcement remains rare, according to national and statewide data.
Based on reports filed with the Texas Attorney General’s office, there have been 30 people under the age of 18 fatally shot by law enforcement since 2005. Edwards is among the youngest killed, although a 6-year-old and three infants are part of that count.
Nationally, law enforcement officers have killed nearly a dozen 15-year-olds since 2015, based on data compiled by The Washington Post. During that same period, police also fatally shot two 6-year-olds, a 12-year-old, a 13-year-old and two 14-year-olds.
“It’s a pretty significant event when a juvenile is shot by police,” said Mike A. Males, a senior researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.