By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune
Oiriginally published: July 18, 2017
A Dallas County grand jury indicted a former Balch Springs police officer on a murder charge Monday in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, an exceedingly rare legal step in Texas that illustrates the controversy surrounding the shooting since details of it rocked the community in April.
Though news of police shootings has become commonplace in Texas and throughout the nation, disciplinary action against an officer isn’t typical and a murder indictment is almost unheard of. It takes overwhelming evidence for investigators and prosecutors to challenge an officer’s decision to fire his or her weapon, even in controversial incidents. In the rare instances they do, it is often for a lesser charge, like manslaughter or aggravated assault.
A Texas Tribune investigation of 656 police shootings in Texas’ largest cities between 2010 and 2015 found only 25 officers who were disciplined by their department after a shooting, with ten of them being fired. Only seven cops were indicted on a criminal charge, none of which were for murder, and none of which have led to a conviction.
And yet, on Monday, a little more than two months after Roy Oliver shot and killed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards while he sat in the passenger seat of a car moving away from police, the relatively new Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson confidently announced a grand jury had indicted Oliver on one count of murder and four counts of aggravated assault by a public servant, one for each of the other teens who were in the car with Edwards.
“Hopefully it is a message we’re sending to bad police officers. And that is, if you do wrong, we will prosecute you,” she said at a news conference.
Lee Merritt, a lawyer for the Edwards family, posted on Twitter that he remained “cautious” after the indictment, adding that it has been more than 40 years since a police officer was convicted of murder in Texas.
In 1973, Dallas police officer Darrell Cain was convicted of murder in the death of Santos Rodriguez, a 12-year-old boy who Cain forced into a version of Russian roulette in which Cain held a gun to the boy’s head and, on the second pull of the trigger, killed him while he sat handcuffed inside a squad car. Cain claimed the shooting was an accident and was sentenced to five years in prison but was released in half the time.
The law enforcement reaction to the death of Edwards, a Mesquite High School freshman, differed from that of most police shootings almost immediately. Though Balch Springs police originally said Oliver shot Edwards when the car was being driven toward officers, Chief Jonathan Haber changed the narrative after watching body camera footage to say the car was moving the opposite direction. Within a week of the shooting, Oliver was fired from the department and arrested on suspicion of murder.
The quick action by law enforcement raised questions from the two largest police unions in the state. On Tuesday, the executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas said the fast firing and indictment of Oliver had a “tinge of politics” to it and that a rushed investigation can lead to two tragedies instead of one.
“The district attorney is looking for a victory here — that’s what’s going on,” said Charley Wilkison. “District attorneys, they’re supposed to seek justice; they’re not supposed to enter an investigation with an outcome in mind. That’s something else. That’s not justice.”
Though indictments against police are rare, Dallas County, under multiple district attorneys, appears to have the most in the state in recent years. In March 2016, Farmers Branch officer Ken Johnson was indicted on a murder charge in the off-duty shooting of a 16-year-old he chased after suspecting him of breaking into his vehicle. He has since resigned, but his case has not yet gone to trial.
In the Tribune’s 2016 investigation, three of the seven officers who were indicted in a shooting came from Dallas County. Dallas police officers Cardan Spencer and Amy Wilburn were both indicted in 2013 on charges of aggravated assault in separate non-fatal shootings (neither case has gone to trial). And Garland police officer Patrick Tuter was indicted on a manslaughter charge in 2013, more than a year after he shot 41 times at Michael Allen, who was fleeing from police in a truck, killing him.
Before Tuter’s case, no Dallas County grand jury had indicted an officer in a fatal shooting in more than 15 years, according to the Dallas Morning News. In December, the judge in his case declared a mistrial after the jury couldn’t reach a verdict.
Another unusual Texas case led to a conviction in 2014 for Sgt. Jason Blackwelder with the Conroe Police Department. Blackwelder, who was off duty, killed Russell Rios, an unarmed 19-year-old community college student, by shooting him in the back of the head as he fled a Walmart where he was suspected of shoplifting. Blackwelder was found guilty of manslaughter and received five years of probation and no jail time.
These examples are exceptions to the norm, the few times when action was taken against officers among hundreds of shootings. Police have a wide discretion to fire their weapons, and the law tends to side with them if they say they were in a situation where lethal force was needed.
Oliver’s legal case is just beginning. A rare sequence of events has led to his indictment, but, as his case (likely slowly) now winds through the criminal justice system, it would be even rarer for a jury to hand down a murder conviction.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.
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