A former police officer in Texas has been found guilty of murder in the high-profile shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards — a rare victory for civil rights activists seeking justice for the dozens of unarmed African American men and boys who have been killed by police officers in recent years.
As Judge Brandon Birmingham read the verdict Tuesday against Roy Oliver, who worked in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs, sobs came from the gallery of the packed courtroom. The last time an on-duty police officer in Dallas County was convicted of murder was in 1973. Oliver could be sentenced to life in prison.
“I’m just so thankful,” Jordan’s father, Odell Edwards, told reporters. “Thankful, thankful.”
Daryl Washington, an attorney representing the family, said the verdict meant more than justice for Jordan.
“It’s about Tamir Rice. It’s about Walter Scott. It’s about Alton Sterling,” he said, naming victims of police shootings in recent years. “It’s about every, every African American, unarmed African American, who has been killed and who has not gotten justice.”
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted a link to a news story about the conviction, saying that Jordan’s “life should never have been lost.”
On the night of April 29, 2017, Oliver fired an MC5 rifle into a Chevrolet Impala carrying Jordan and two of his brothers as it pulled away from a high school house party. Jordan, who was struck in the head, died later at a hospital.
Police initially said the vehicle had backed up toward Oliver “in an aggressive manner,” but body camera video showed the car was moving away from him and his partner. Days after the shooting, Oliver, who had served in the department for six years, was fired.
Jordan’s stepbrother, Vidal Allen, was driving the car the night of the shooting.
“I was very scared,” Allen testified. “I just wanted to get home and get everyone safe.”
Oliver, 38, has said he feared for his life and his partner’s safety.
“I had to make a decision. This car is about to hit my partner,” Oliver testified in the trial. “I had no other option.”
After a weeklong trial, it took the jury one day to reach a verdict.
Jordan’s death echoes other police shootings involving black boys and men. But no convictions were handed down in most of those cases.
In November 2014, Cleveland police got a 911 call about someone brandishing a pistol near a park — the weapon, the caller said, was “probably fake.” But in an incident captured on camera, a police cruiser pulled into the park and Officer Timothy Loehmann jumped out and opened fire. Within seconds, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who had a toy gun, was dead.
Even before Tamir’s death, the U.S. Department of Justice had been investigating the Cleveland Police Department. A month after his shooting, it released a report saying Cleveland police displayed a pattern of using unnecessary force.
A year later, a grand jury decided not to indict Loehmann in Tamir’s death, saying he had reason to fear for his life.
In September 2016, in Columbus, Ohio, police shot and killed Tyre King, 13, who was carrying a BB gun while running from police. A grand jury declined to file criminal charges against the officer who killed him.
And in May 2017, an Oklahoma jury acquitted an officer who shot and killed Terence Crutcher, 40, as he stood with his hands above his head along a rural highway.
Those cases and others illustrate the difficulty of convicting police officers. The law in most places gives them the benefit of the doubt.
Prosecutors usually must show that an officer knowingly and intentionally killed without justification or provocation. A fear of harm has been successfully used as the justification for many shootings, even when the victim turned out to be unarmed.
The most recent case that ended in a conviction came last year when Michael Slager, a former officer in North Charleston, S.C., was first tried on murder charges in the April 2015 shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was stopped for a driving with a broken taillight. But after those proceedings ended in a mistrial, Slager pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The last Dallas County police officer convicted for murder while on duty was Darrell Cain, who shot and killed 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez after forcing him to endure a version of Russian roulette while handcuffed inside a patrol car.
There was no immediate reaction to Thursday’s verdict from local or national police groups.
John Fullinwider, a longtime Dallas activist and co-founder of MothersAgainst Police Brutality, said Oliver’s conviction came as a surprise.
“I expected to see an angel fly over City Hall before I saw this murder conviction,” he said. “This is a victory, but we really need independent federal prosecutors in all fatal police shootings.”
Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney who represents the Edwards family, said the conviction was justice for the country.
“We’ve seen time and time again, no charges, let alone convictions, in these high-profile shootings,” he said. “It is my hope that this is a turning point in the fight against police brutality against blacks.”