Police are justified in maiming, shooting or killing you if another “reasonable” officer would’ve done the same thing. That’s the malleable, snake-eating-its-tail legal standard that the U.S. Supreme Court established for judging police violence three decades ago. Critics still blame the landmark ruling for making it almost impossible to hold killer cops accountable.
In light of the standard, the conviction of former Balch Springs police officer Roy Oliver was nothing short of extraordinary. Prosecutions for on-duty killings are virtually unheard of, particularly in Texas. And yet on Wednesday, after a grueling two-week trial, a Dallas County jury convicted Oliver of murdering Jordan Edwards, the 15-year-old boy who Oliver killed when he fired into a car full of unarmed kids last year.
Oliver’s lawyers argued the shooting was justified and that any other reasonable cop would have done the same thing. On the night of the shooting in April 2017, Oliver and other officers had been busting a high school party in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs when gunshots suddenly rang out somewhere else in the neighborhood. As teenagers scrambled to leave, Oliver ran to his cruiser and grabbed a semi-automatic rifle before rushing up the street to find his partner yelling at a Chevrolet Impala. Oliver’s partner had ordered the car to stop; Oliver then fired to make sure it did.
After the shooting, Oliver claimed the car was careening toward his partner and that he only fired out of fear for his life. Police terminated Oliver and prosecutors filed charges against him after body camera footage revealed the car was driving away from the officers when he discharged his weapon. Still, at trial Oliver insisted he “had no other option” but to shoot. His defense team even hired Jay Coons, a captain with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, to tell the jury why the shooting was “reasonable.” Prosecutors slowed down the video footage, frame-by-frame, to underscore their point that nobody was in front of the car when Oliver fired a volley of bullets into it.
Prosecutors with the Dallas County DA’s office, which has made it a habit of charging cops for questionable shootings in recent years, called Oliver a “ticking time bomb.” They pointed out that in the past, he’d been disciplined for mouthing off at prosecutors in court when called to testify. Two weeks before he shot and killed Edwards, two women testified that Oliver had pulled a gun on them during a fender bender.
“It was the first time I ever had a gun in my face,” Monique Arredondo testified. “I thought I was going to die in front of my sister and my niece.”
The prosecution of Oliver, who faces up to life in prison, was closely watched after acquittals in other high-profile police shootings. The case may now illustrate the high bar prosecutors must clear for a conviction — a white cop with anger issues caught lying about why he fired on a vehicle full of unarmed black teenagers.
Daryl Washington, an attorney representing the Edwards family in its civil suit against Oliver and the department, said the conviction is for “all families who have lost a kid as a result of police brutality.”
“Kids all over America can feel a bit safer and like their lives matter, and hopefully there will not be another Jordan Edwards, Tamir Rice, Clinton Allen, Alton Sterling, Marquise Jones, Jermane Darden, Eric Garner, Terrence Cutcher,” he told the Observer.
In his closing arguments at trial, assistant DA Michael Snipes said Oliver’s case was about public trust in police. Convicting him, Snipes said, would benefit police officers — and the public they serve — by proving the system wouldn’t tolerate Oliver’s actions.
Snipes also insisted his office has nothing against cops. “We’ll continue to work with police officers, we love them,” he said, before turning toward Oliver. “Just not when they do what he did that night.”