By Adeel Hassan
A white former police officer in a Dallas suburb was found guilty by a jury on Tuesday of fatally shooting an unarmed black high school freshman with a high-powered rifle in April 2017.
The former officer, Roy D. Oliver II, was fired from the Balch Springs Police Department after he shot and killed Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old high school freshman, as Jordan and four other teenagers drove away from a house party. Oliver fired into the vehicle, hitting Jordan in the head as he sat in the front passenger seat.
Last week, Oliver testified he had decided to fire at the car when he saw it moving toward his partner, Officer Tyler Gross, endangering him. But Gross told the court that he had not feared for his life.
The jury returned its verdict on the second day of deliberations. Oliver, 38, was found not guilty on two counts of aggravated assault, but he faces at least five years or up to life in prison on the murder conviction.
There were gasps in the courtroom as the verdict was read, with the Edwards family hugging prosecutors amid their tears. “I just want to say I’m happy, very happy,” Jordan’s father, Odell Edwards, said outside the courtroom. “It’s been a long time, hard year. Just really happy.”
Since Michael Brown, 18, was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, four years ago this month, cases in which African-Americans were shot by police officers or died in police custody have risen to national prominence, increasing racial tensions.
But despite the attention, officers are rarely convicted of using deadly force, said Ronal Serpas, a former police chief in Nashville, Tennessee, and New Orleans and a co-chairman of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, a group of police chiefs and prosecutors.
A lawyer for Jordan’s family said Tuesday’s verdict held great significance in the effort to seek justice for black victims.
“It’s about Tamir Rice. It’s about Walter Scott. It’s about Alton Sterling,” said Daryl Washington, the lawyer. “It’s about every, every African-American, unarmed African-American, who has been killed and who has not gotten justice.”
Oliver had been an officer in Balch Springs, a working-class suburb of 24,000, since 2011. He joined the force after serving as an infantryman in the Army and being deployed to Iraq twice.
He was charged with murder one week after shooting Jordan and was fired by the town’s police chief, who said Oliver had violated department policies.
Linda Oliver, the officer’s mother, said tearfully in an interview that she was “just stunned” by the verdict. Asked whether she had thought the jury would convict her son, she said, “Absolutely not.”
“I don’t think the testimony supported it,” Linda Oliver said. “I think what hurt him the most was that the other officer didn’t think he was in danger.”
The trial immediately entered the penalty phase on Tuesday, with many of Jordan’s teachers being called to the stand.
“Jordan was a great kid,” said Robert Howig, a physical education teacher at Mesquite High School. “Respectful, polite, it was just a pleasure to teach him.”
A math teacher, Anna Polk said, “I would love to have a classroom of Jordans. It would make teaching so easy.”
The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, also reacted to the verdict, posting on Twitter: “This life should have never been lost.”