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Unusual murder trial begins for police officer who killed an unarmed black teen

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The body camera footage started with former police officer Roy Oliver jovially teasing teenagers fleeing from a party busted by the cops, laughing as they complained about walking through the mud.

Minutes later, the situation changed entirely as gunshots rang through the air. Teens screamed, running in all directions, and Oliver rushed to his patrol car, grabbed his rifle and ran after his partner who was approaching a slowly-reversing sedan on foot. Almost immediately, as the car began to move the opposite direction, Oliver fired five shots into the vehicle, then asked his partner if he was alright.

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“He was trying to hit you,” he shouted.

His partner was fine and didn’t feel his life was threatened, but Oliver would later learn that one of the rounds he fired shot into the passenger side window and entered the back of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards’ head, killing him instantly.

Edwards’ last words, according to his brother, were: “Duck, get down.”

The footage and words were revealed in the emotional opening day of Oliver’s murder trial in a Dallas County courtroom Thursday. He is being tried in the on-duty shooting of Edwards, an unarmed black teen leaving a party with his brothers and friends in Balch Springs in April 2017.

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It’s a historic case — despite increased scrutiny of police shootings and other uses of force in recent years, criminal charges against law enforcement officers remain rare in Texas and nationwide — and murder convictions are almost nonexistent. Police have a wide discretion to shoot if they’re in fear for their own life or someone else’s, and the law tends to side with them if they say they were in a situation where lethal force was needed.

Texas Tribune investigation of 656 police shootings in the state’s largest cities between 2010 and 2015 found only seven cops were indicted on a criminal charge, none of which were for murder, and none of which have led to jail time (four pleaded guilty to lesser charges and received short probation sentences).

Nationwide, fewer than 100 law enforcement officers have faced murder or manslaughter charges since 2005 — an average of less than 7 a year, according to data collected by Bowling Green State University. Only one of those officers has had a murder conviction that stuck. FBI data from 2005 to 2014 indicates an average of more than 400 people were killed by police each year.

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But with Roy Oliver, Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson has said she is sending a message to law enforcement: “if you do wrong, we will prosecute you.”

“Police officers have very dangerous jobs; they have to make split-second decisions,” said First Assistant District Attorney Mike Snipes in his opening statement before the jury. “We stand by police officers every single day in this courthouse … no reasonable police officer would have engaged that car.”

It happened in an instant

The 2017 shooting immediately brought public outrage and national attention, and criminal and internal investigations quickly led to Oliver’s firing from the department and arrest.

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The high school yearbook picture of a smiling Edwards spread across the news and social media. A freshman at Mesquite High School, he played football and was on the honor roll.

Edwards was unarmed, sitting in the passenger seat of a car that was moving away from officers when he was shot and killed. There were no weapons, drugs or alcohol found in the car — they were simply trying to leave a party after police arrived and they heard gunshots, his brothers testified on Thursday.

The entire incident happened in less than a minute. Body camera footage showed that Oliver’s partner, Tyler Gross, was talking to the host of the broken up party inside when gunshots sounded outside. Gross and Oliver both ran outside, and Gross quickly approached the car with Edwards — it was slowly backing up down the road, away from the house.

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He shouted for the driver, Edwards’ then 16-year-old brother Vidal Allen, to stop, but the car kept reversing, backing onto an intersecting street. Gross shouted again for Allen to stop and rapped on the rear window with his pistol, accidentally shattering the glass, as the car began to accelerate forward, away from Gross. In an instant, Oliver fired five shots from behind on the other side of the car.

Allen acknowledged in court that he heard someone yelling at him to “stop the f-ing car,” but said he didn’t know it was Oliver’s partner or a police officer at all that was shouting at him. After hearing gunshots, he simply wanted to get away.

“I was in fear for my life. I just wanted to get home and get everybody safe,” he said.

Oliver’s lawyers indicated in court Thursday that the former officer’s actions were meant to protect his partner, Gross. Though Gross did not feel in fear for his life or feel any need to fire his weapon, he said in his testimony that he doesn’t know what Oliver felt or saw.

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“I could just see that they were young teenagers, boys,” Gross said on the witness stand. “I didn’t think he was trying to run me over.”

Chances of a conviction

On a morning break after the trial had just begun, Oliver paced around the defense desk nervously in a gray suit. With concern visible on his face, he leaned over to a woman behind the partition and kissed her quickly.

His future is far from certain, and his trial is expected to last about two weeks, but statistics are largely on his side. The last murder conviction against an on-duty officer in a Texas shooting was 45 years ago.

Even among the rare cases where officers are tried for murder in the country, there is almost never a conviction on that charge. Philip Stinson, an associate professor who tracks the data for Bowling Green State University, said Thursday that only about a third of the officers arrested for murder or manslaughter from an on-duty shooting since 2005 have been convicted of any crime — and most of those were for lesser offenses, like manslaughter.

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Only one officer was convicted and sentenced on a murder charge: James Ashbywas sentenced in 2016 to 16 years in Colorado after fatally shooting unarmed Jack Jacquez in the back.

But Dallas County has not shied away from criminal action against law enforcement. In January, former Farmers Branch officer Ken Johnson was sentenced to 10 years on convictions of murder and aggravated assault in an off-duty shooting. In 2016, he chased two teens who broke into his personal car and shot them, killing one. And three of the four officers who pleaded guilty to probation charges in the Texas Tribune data were in Dallas County.

Oliver is also being tried of two charges of aggravated assault by a public servant, connected to two of the other teens inside the vehicle.

BY JOLIE MCCULLOUGH, THE TEXAS TRIBUNE


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