Dallas Cops on Trial: A Recent History

Activists demonstrated in front of Dallas Police Department headquarters after Botham Jean's death in September 2018.
Activists demonstrated in front of Dallas Police Department headquarters after Botham Jean's death in September 2018. Brian Maschino
For decades, Dallas cops didn't go on trial. From 1973, when a Travis County jury convicted Dallas Police Department Officer Darrell Cain of murder after Cain shot 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez in the head in the back of a patrol car during an interrogation, to April 2014, when a Dallas County Grand Jury indicted Cardan Spencer for shooting Bobby Bennett as Bennett got up out of a swivel chair on a Rylie cul-de-sac, no DPD officer faced charges for an on-duty shooting.

Spencer's indictment broke the dam. In the five years that followed, Dallas County grand juries would indict cops from DPD and other police departments in the county on a regular basis for actions taken both off duty and on.

As the trial of former Dallas Police Department Officer Amber Guyger gets underway, let's look at some of those cases.

Cardan Spencer — Spencer got indicted for a couple of reasons: First, he lied in the affidavit he filed after shooting Bennett. Second, there was video to prove he wasn't telling the truth. Spencer said Bennett raised his knife in a threatening manner and took a step toward police officers before being shot in October 2013. Video from a nearby home showed that wasn't the case. In the video, Bennett stands up from the office chair in which he was sitting but doesn't raise the knife or move toward the officers. Spencer pleaded guilty to attempted deadly conduct in 2014 after initially being charged with aggravated assault by a public servant. He served two years' probation. Bennett received a $1.6 million civil settlement from Dallas in 2015.

Amy Wilburn — Two months after Spencer shot Bennett, Dallas police officer Amy Wilburn shot Kelvion Walker as Walker sat in the passenger seat of a stolen car in December 2013. According to witnesses, Wilburn shot Walker, who was unarmed, as Walker held his hands in the air. Walker survived but suffered serious internal injuries.

A grand jury indicted Wilburn for felony aggravated assault by a public servant. Like Spencer, she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge — unlawfully discharging a firearm — and was sentenced to probation in 2018.

Last week, a jury was unable to reach a verdict in Walker's federal lawsuit against Wilburn.

Ken Johnson
Addison Police Department
Ken Johnson — The case of former Farmers Branch police officer Ken Johnson shares a twist with Guyger's. Like Guyger, he was off-duty when he shot and killed 16-year-old Jose Cruz in March 2016.

Johnson was out of uniform when he saw Cruz and Edgar Rodriguez, both 16, breaking into his Chevy Tahoe at Johnson's apartment complex in Farmers Branch. As Cruz and Rodriguez tried to get away from Johnson in Cruz's red Dodge Challenger, Johnson gave chase in his Tahoe, eventually ramming into the Challenger at Spring Valley Road and Marsh Lane.

After forcing Cruz and Rodriguez off the road, Johnson got out of his car as it rolled into traffic and fired 16 shots at the two teenagers. Cruz died at the scene from a shot to the head. Rodriguez, hit in the head and hand, survived but lost a finger and had to have his ear reconstructed.

Robert Rogers, one of Johnson's defense attorneys, blamed the shooting on "instinct and adrenaline," saying it led his client to act in self-defense.

"Ken Johnson had a day off, but when you're a peace officer, you never have a day off," Rogers said, according to reporters in the courtroom.

The jury didn't buy Rogers' argument and convicted Johnson of murder. A Dallas County jury sentenced Johnson to 10 years in prison in January 2018.

Roy Oliver
Parker County
Roy Oliver — Last August, Roy Oliver became the first Dallas County cop since Cain to be convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting.

The ex-Balch Springs officer fired a rifle five times into a Chevrolet Impala driving away from a party in the eastern Dallas County town in April 2017. Oliver hit Jordan Edwards, 15, in the head, killing the Mesquite High School freshman.

Officers' actions, as they were in Oliver's and Cain's cases, have to be egregious for an American jury to convict a cop of murder, Philip Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University who maintains a comprehensive database of police shootings, told the Observer after the verdict was announced.

"In order for an officer, frankly, to even be charged with murder, but absolutely for an officer to be convicted in one of these cases, the facts of the case have to be so bizarre that they can't be rationally explained in any way," Stinson said. "When you have a situation where an officer shoots into a car full of teenagers that's slowly driving away from the officer ... it fits the pattern that we've seen."

Despite having the option to convict Oliver of manslaughter, a Dallas County jury gave Oliver 15 years in August 2018.

Derick Wiley
Mesquite Police
Derick Wiley — Former Mesquite police officer Derick Wiley shot an unarmed man twice in the back in 2017. A Dallas County grand jury indicted him for aggravated assault. Wiley's first trial ended with a hung jury, but in his second, completed earlier this year, a Dallas County jury accepted his defense that he feared for his life and found him not guilty.

Michael Dunn
Seagoville Police Department
Michael Dunn — On June 12, Michael Dunn and other Farmers Branch Police Department officers were watching a truck they believed to be stolen in a Dallas parking lot. When Dunn and the other officers began walking toward the truck, according to police, the driver of the truck, Juan Moreno Jr., began to pull out of the parking lot. Dunn then pulled his gun and shot and killed Moreno.  A Dallas County grand jury indicted Dunn on murder charges in June, outraging Dallas' police unions, who believed the eight-day police investigation before the case was handed over to the district attorney's office was too short.

"My biggest concern is how we got there," Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata said. "How did we get to that grand jury? I know from my 25 years on this department ... We have never had an investigation completed in less than eight days ready to hand over to the DA. Never."
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young