DALLAS — Jurors are now deciding the fate of a former Texas police officer who was convicted of murder for fatally shooting a black, unarmed teenager last year in suburban Dallas.
Wednesday marks the second day of the sentencing phase in the trial of Roy Oliver, who was convicted Tuesday for the 2017 slaying of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards. Edwards was killed when Oliver, a police officer in Balch Springs at the time, fired into a car full of black teenagers as it drove away from a house party.
In a rare guilty verdict in a police shooting case, the Dallas County jurors were not swayed by Oliver's claim that he feared for his partner's life when he fired into the vehicle. His partner told jurors he didn't fear for his life.
Gasps echoed around the courtroom as the verdict was read. Edwards’ relatives sobbed and hugged prosecutors, waved their hands in the air and proclaimed “Thank you, Jesus!” after the jury left.
His father, Odell Edwards, briefly spoke outside the courtroom before heading back in to begin listening to the sentencing phase of the trial. He said he was thankful for the decision of the jury — which featured two black members out of 12 jurors and two alternates — and felt like jumping for joy.
“I just want to say I'm happy, very happy,” he said, adding that it's “been a long time” since he felt that way.
Jurors later heard from Edwards’ father when he testified during the sentencing phase of the trial. He told them his son always had a smile on his face and dreamed of playing football at Alabama.
Oliver faces between five and 99 years in prison, according to an Edwards family attorney.
Oliver and his partner were responding to a report of underage drinking at the house party. Police initially said the vehicle backed up toward officers “in an aggressive manner,” but later said that bodycam video showed the vehicle was moving forward as officers approached. Oliver was fired just days after the shooting.
Experts say it's extremely rare for police officers to be tried and convicted of murder for shootings that occurred while they were on duty.
Only six non-federal police officers have now been convicted of murder in such cases — and four of those were overturned — since 2005, according to data compiled by criminologist and Bowling Green State University professor Phil Stinson. Stinson, who tracks such cases nationwide , told The Associated Press on Tuesday that to secure a murder conviction, the facts of a case have to be "so over the top and bizarre" that the officer's actions can't be rationally explained.
Experts also say that securing a conviction against an officer is often a challenge because jurors are inclined to believe police testimony and criminal culpability in such cases is subjective.
Oliver was found not guilty on two lesser charges of aggravated assault stemming from the shooting. Jurors deliberated for two days before reaching the verdicts. The sentencing phase stretched into the evening Tuesday before jurors recessed for the day.
“This was a long fought battle,” said Daryl Washington, an attorney representing Odell Edwards in a civil lawsuit filed in the death. “We are just happy ... that Roy Oliver is gonna have to do his time for taking Jordan's life. What he did on that night should have never happened.”
Washington said black children and teenagers across the country can now walk around a little safer because officers know they will be held accountable.
In closing arguments, defense attorneys told jurors they needed to evaluate the circumstances from Oliver's viewpoint and from what the former officer knew at the time. But prosecutors described Oliver as out of control and looking for a reason to kill. They argued that his firing into the car wasn't reasonable.
The shooting came after Oliver and his partner, Tyler Gross, had broken up the party. Both officers were inside the residence when they heard gunfire outside and responded. Authorities later determined the shots were fired near a nursing home in the area.
Oliver retrieved his rifle and went toward Gross, who was ordering the car carrying Edwards to stop. Oliver testified that he saw the car back up and stop for a second before moving forward and going toward Gross.
Oliver told the jury the car was about to hit his partner. Oliver said he felt he had no other option but to fire. Gross, however, testified that he did not fear for his life and never felt the need to fire his weapon. He also said he didn't feel like the vehicle was trying to hit him.
Prosecutors said Oliver fired after the vehicle passed Gross. Investigators also said no guns were found in the teens’ vehicle.