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Roy Oliver's Conviction Is a Rarity Among Rarities

Protesters call for justice for Jordan Edwards in 2017.EXPAND
Protesters call for justice for Jordan Edwards in 2017.
Brian Maschino
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When cops shoot and kill civilians in the United States, they rarely get indicted for anything. It's rarer still when they get charged with murder and even rarer than that when they are actually convicted of a crime — usually manslaughter, if anything. That's what makes Tuesday afternoon's events just west of downtown Dallas so amazing.

A Dallas County jury convicted Roy Oliver, an ex-Balch Springs cop, of murder for the April 2017 shooting death of Mesquite teenager Jordan Edwards. The jury, made up of 10 women — five white, three Hispanic and two black — and two white men, could've found Oliver guilty of manslaughter instead, but they went for the highest possible count.

According to a comprehensive database of police shootings maintained by Philip Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University, Oliver is one of 33 police officers nationwide convicted of murder or manslaughter since 2005. He is one of only two U.S. police officers convicted of murder over the same span. Oliver is the first police officer in Texas since at least 2005 convicted of a crime for killing someone while on duty.

Oliver is the first Dallas County police officer convicted of murder for an on-duty incident in 45 years, following in the infamous footsteps of Darrell L. Cain. Cain shot 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez in the head in the back of a police car as he questioned the boy about a theft from a vending machine.

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 Edwards, 15, in the head, killing the Mesquite High School freshman.

Officers' actions, as they were in both Oliver's and Cain's cases, have to be egregious for an American jury to hang a murder conviction on a cop, Stinson says.

"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 says. "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."

In the only other murder case involving a cop to result in a conviction since 2005, former Rocky Ford, Colorado, police officer James Ashby followed Jack Jacquez into Jacquez's mother's house and shot Jacquez in the back.

When officers go on trial, jurors are asked to consider whether they acted in the way a reasonable cop would have. In many cases, Stinson says, that can be a big obstacle for prosecutors to overcome, especially when defendants take the stand themselves. 

"In the cases where the officers get up on the stand and testify in their own defense, as he did here, the typical outcome is that it ends in an acquittal or a mistrial with a hung jury," Stinson says. "I think the facts are different here. The facts are unique. It's tragic, and that's the basis for the conviction."

Oliver claimed that he believed his partner, Tyler Gross, was in danger from the car in which Edwards was riding despite the car already having moved past Gross. Gross testified at the trial that he was not in fear when Oliver began shooting. 

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