Former Balch Springs cop Roy Oliver's murder trial began, finally, on Thursday. Oliver's trial, the most anticipated of a Dallas County police officer in decades, will close the loop on more than a year of investigations, protests and delays. On April 29, 2017, Oliver shot and killed Jordan Edwards as Edwards, two of his brothers and one of their friends drove away from a house party Oliver and his partner were breaking up. Now it's up to a jury to decide whether Oliver is a murderer or was acting legally as a police officer.
After heading into the house to break up the party, Oliver thought he heard gunshots outside, according to a statement made after the incident by Balch Springs police Chief Jonathan Haber. Oliver and his partner ran out of the house and ordered the car in which Jordan Edwards was riding to stop. The car didn't stop, Balch Springs police say, so Oliver fired at the car with a rifle.
The shot hit Edwards in the head and killed him. In his initial report of the incident, Oliver said the car was coming at him when he shot at it. Later, Haber said that wasn't true. The car was driving away from Oliver, the chief said.
In July 2017, a Dallas County grand jury indicted Oliver for Edwards' murder. The ex-cop was also charged with one count of aggravated assault for each of the four teenagers traveling in the car with Edwards.
The key issue for Dallas County prosecutors and Oliver's defense attorneys, throughout the trial, is whether the jury ends up believing that Oliver acted as a reasonable police officer would have during the shooting.
"Police officers have very dangerous jobs," Dallas County First Assistant District Attorney Michael Snipes said during his opening statement. "They have to make split-second decisions. They have to make decisions that are extremely important. We stand beside police officers every single day in this courthouse. ... Some of my best friends are police officers, and I'm proud to serve with them, but that is not what happened the night of April 29, 2017."
Oliver, Snipes said, was angry and out of control the night he shot Edwards.
"He was dangerous, he was stomping up and down the road and he was trigger-happy," Snipes said. "He was completely, totally unreasonable and out of line."
While Bob Gill, Oliver's attorney, elected to save his opening argument until after the prosecution rests its case, the former cop will likely argue that he both feared for his life and believed he was protecting his partner, if the filings in Edwards' parents' civil case against Oliver are any guide. That strategy has a chance to work, according to experts.
"We've seen in several cases recently that have resulted in mistrials with a hung jury, the officer will get on the witness stand in their own defense at a trial and say, 'I thought my life was in danger,'" Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminologist who maintains a comprehensive database of alleged crimes committed by cops, told the Observer after the shooting. "As soon as some jurors hear that, they think, 'That's it, I'm not going to convict a cop who thought his life was in danger.'"
To counter that likely defense claim, Stinson said, the prosecution could point to the fact that Oliver chose to draw his rifle as he ordered the car to stop. His partner, officer Tyler Gross, drew his pistol instead.
"That suggests to me that other officers did not perceive the same level of threat," Stinson said. "Or perhaps [Gross] didn't think he needed one because Oliver had one."
In his response in the civil case, the former officer says that he "fear[ed] for himself and others" as Edwards and his companions drove away, leading Oliver to shoot into the car.
As the officers talked to partygoers inside the house, they heard "six to 10 shots," according to Oliver. The officers and teens all headed outside. Edwards, his brothers and a friend piled into a Chevrolet Impala and attempted to leave. As the teenagers did so, according to Oliver, they reversed down Baron, the street in front of the house, to Shepherd Lane. As the car pulled away from the officers, Oliver says, Gross pursued the vehicle on foot. Oliver, feeling that he needed to back up Gross, grabbed a service rifle from his patrol car and followed behind.
When the car reached Shepherd Lane, the driver, one of Edwards' brothers, put it in drive and drove past the officers. As he did, Gross broke the rear passenger window of the car with his gun. The sound of broken glass, according to Oliver, made him believe his partner was in danger. Oliver fired three to five rifle rounds into the car from 10 to 15 feet away, he says. One of those bullets hit Edwards in the head, killing the Mesquite High School freshman.
"From his peripheral vision, Oliver sees Gross move his weapon towards the rear passenger side window. Oliver hears violence/breaking glass at Gross' location, and in fear for himself and others, Oliver fires his weapon into the car," Oliver's response says.
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His use of force "was a reasonable response to a reasonable perception that the actions of the occupants of the black car under the totality of the circumstances created an immediate risk to another person of death or serious bodily injury," the filing says.
The prosecution called Gross to testify Thursday morning. After the officer described the events that led up to the shooting, Snipes asked Gross if he was scared the car was going to hit him.
"I was not in fear at that point," Gross said.
Oliver faces five to 99 years in prison on the murder charge. If he's convicted, he'll be the first cop convicted of murder in Dallas County since Dallas police Officer Darrell L. Cain in 1973. Cain shot 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez in the head as Rodriguez sat in the back of Cain's squad car, accused of stealing $8 from a gas station vending machine.