Texas policeman Roy Oliver murdered 15-year-old Jordan Edwards when he fired five times into the car holding Edwards and other teens in April 2017, a Dallas County jury found Tuesday.
Oliver’s defense team argued the killing was justified because he thought the car was going to run over Officer Tyler Gross, who was partnered with Oliver on the Balch Springs force until Oliver was fired after the killing. Jurors took 12 hours over two days to decide they didn’t accept that argument. Oliver is the first Texas cop to be convicted in an on-duty shooting in four decades, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Oliver becomes the 33rd officer anywhere in the country to be convicted of an on-duty homicide since the start of 2005, according to a database kept by Bowling Green professor and ex-cop Phil Stinson.
Fewer than 90 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter anywhere in the country over those 13 years and eight months, though the Washington Post’s police shootings databases record just under 1,000 people shot and killed by police each year from 2015 to 2017 alone. (Police had shot 679 people dead nationwide in 2018 as of the paper’s August 20 update, up by 25 from the prior year on the same date. No reliable numbers exist for 2014 or prior years, as federal data collection from the tens of thousands of scattered, overlapping agencies that conduct U.S. law enforcement work is error-riddled and news organizations had not undertaken the same level of detailed, iterative gathering of cases prior to 2015.)
Together, the Post’s figures and Stinson’s records suggest that less than 1 percent of all police killings since 2005 led to criminal charges.
Oliver’s trial also illustrates just how high the courts have placed the criminal liability bar for police officers in on-duty killings.
But Oliver’s own partner testified against him, saying he had not feared for his life — a crucial component given the legal standards set for cop liability by the Supreme Court — and an independent deadly-force expert told the jury the killing was not justified by the circumstances.
Without the dual layers of a fellow officer and outsider expert testifying against him, Oliver would likely have been acquitted despite clear video evidence that the car he fired into was moving away from Gross rather than toward him. Even when there is ample video evidence from which to judge, jurors are instructed that they may not employ their own judgment but must instead attempt to apply that of a “reasonable officer” on the scene. The courts’ paltry efforts to define that phrase have mostly resulted in jury instructions that effectively require them to defer to what the officer in the field says they experienced.
Even juries that seem to want to convict have sometimes said they understood the court rules forbade them from doing so. Former Tulsa, Oklahoma officer Betty Jo Shelby was acquitted by jurors who would later explain they believed they had no choice but to deliver that decision. Shelby, like Oliver, took the stand in her own defense — a move that used to be vanishingly rare from defense attorneys in police shootings, but which experts say has helped win acquittals or mistrials in some modern cases where compelling video evidence called the legitimacy of a particular shooting into question.
A year on from her acquittal, Shelby is now getting paid to train Oklahoma law enforcement agents on how to handle public scrutiny after killing someone.