Jordan Edwards’ Shooter Has Been Charged. How Likely Is a Conviction?

Pastor Michael Bowie offers words of comfort to Balch Springs and Dallas-area residents who gathered for a vigil in remembrance of Jordan Edwards, Thursday, May 5, 2017. (Photo: Candice Bernd)Pastor Michael Bowie offers words of comfort to Balch Springs and Dallas-area residents who gathered for a vigil in remembrance of Jordan Edwards, Thursday, May 5, 2017. (Photo: Candice Bernd)

Texas Police Officer Roy Oliver has been fired and charged with murder for fatally shooting 15-year-old Jordan Edwards in the head with a rifle, following intense public pressure. The warrant for Oliver’s arrest and the speed with which it came — only six days after Oliver shot into a car full of teens as they were leaving a Saturday-night party this month — is extremely unusual for a police officer in the state of Texas and nationally.

The Dallas County Sheriff’s Department issued the warrant Friday for Oliver’s arrest, saying evidence “suggested Mr. Oliver intended to cause serious bodily injury and commit an act clearly dangerous to human life that caused the death of the individual.” Oliver turned himself in that night at the Parker County Jail, posted a bond of $300,000 and was released before 10 pm. If convicted, he faces up to life in prison.

Balch Springs Police Chief Jonathan Haber fired Oliver last Tuesday, stating that he had violated departmental policies. However, Haber declined to detail the specific policy violations, citing Oliver’s right to appeal his termination. An attorney for the Edwards family, Lee Merritt, told the Dallas Morning News that Oliver is, in fact, planning to appeal. Edwards’ father has now filed a lawsuit alleging execessive force against Oliver.

Haber said last Tuesday that, initially, he had inappropriately relied on Oliver’s account of last Saturday’s events. Oliver said he fired his rifle because the vehicle was backing up aggressively toward the officers. However, the department changed its account after reviewing footage from the officers’ body-worn cameras. According to statements from Haber, the footage showed the vehicle was driving away when Oliver fired on it. According to Oliver’s arrest warrant, another officer used his gun to break the car’s rear window before Oliver shot Edwards. Despite public outcry and demands for the footage to be released, the department has said it will not release the video while investigations remain ongoing.

While Haber indicated that his department’s own internal, administrative investigation has concluded, officials with the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department have said that their investigation into Edwards’ death will remain ongoing, despite Oliver’s charge.

The Dallas County District Attorney Office’s Civil Rights Unit, under its Public Integrity Division, is also conducting an investigation into the shooting. While the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office issued a warrant for Oliver’s arrest on murder charges, a Dallas County grand jury has not indicted Oliver. A grand jury could still decline to indict him, or indict him for murder or additional charges.

“While [Roy Oliver has] been arrested, he’s not officially charged until the grand jury decides to act,” said Jason Hermus, who is division chief of the Dallas District Attorney Office’s Public Integrity Division. “The case still has to be presented to the grand jury because the grand jury is the only force in Texas that can [formally] charge him. … It doesn’t matter one bit that he’s been arrested. The grand jury can still ‘no bill’ [decline to indict Oliver]. The grand jury can still ‘true bill’ [indict him].”

According to Hermus, the investigative process for arrests for police-involved cases has shifted within the last few years, so that when there is probable cause, a warrant for arrest can be issued before the case goes before a grand jury.

Edwards’ relatives were relieved to learn of the murder charge Friday, telling The New York Times in a statement that, “Although we realize that there remain significant obstacles ahead on the road to justice, this action brings hope that the justice system will bend against the overwhelming weight of our frustration.”

The family ultimately hopes to see a conviction. They also want to see the other officers involved in the tragedy held accountable. “After Jordan’s two brothers, Vidal and Kevon, along with their two friends, were forced to experience this tragedy up close as occupants of the car, they were immediately treated as common criminals by other officers; manhandled, intimidated and arrested, while their brother lay dying in the front seat,” the family told the Dallas Morning News. “The officers who extended this nightmare for those children ought to be properly reprimanded.”

One of Edwards’ brothers, who was with him at the time of the shooting, was handcuffed and held in a jail cell overnight “for no apparent reason,” Merritt told NBC News. Police told Merritt they were holding Edwards’ brother for questioning as a witness, but that none of the other teens in the vehicle that night had been held. Merritt also told NBC News that Balch Springs officers attempted to hold Edwards’ father when he arrived at the station seeking answers about his sons.

“I’m happy that [Oliver] has been charged, because that’s the right thing to do because of his crime,” Eric Lamont Williams, Jordan Edwards’ second cousin, told Truthout. “Certainly, for healing the community, he must be charged and he’s got to do his time and pay the price for his crime, but that doesn’t take away the sorrow. It doesn’t take away the pain. It doesn’t negate the problems that we have in America with police brutality.”

Williams attended Edwards’ funeral Saturday, which was closed to the public. He told Truthout that the family focused primarily on celebrating Edwards’ life and didn’t discuss Oliver or the murder charge. The open-casket service, he said, was moving. “My spirit was lifted,” he told Truthout.

While Williams is confident that there will be a conviction, other police accountability advocates remain skeptical. No police officer in Dallas County, where Balch Springs is located, has been convicted for shooting a civilian since 1973, when former Dallas Officer Darrell L. Cain fatally shot 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez, sparking an uprising in the city.

Still, Sara Mokuria, who lost her father to a Dallas officer when she was 10 and cofounded the Dallas-based police accountability organization Mothers Against Police Brutality (MAPB), says Edwards’ shooting does stand out for its national attention. That the department changed its story early on, “created the perfect context for the system to be forced to act quickly and swiftly,” she says.

A conviction in Oliver’s case, even on a lesser charge, would break a 44-year paradigm. “We’re in Dallas County, and we’re coming up on the anniversary of July 7 [the date of the fatal shooting of five Dallas police officers last year] … and so the sentiment in Dallas County is very pro-police,” Mokuria tells Truthout. “This idea of being able to put aside feelings for law enforcement and recognizing the egregious actions of officers is very difficult for folks,” she said, referring to a potential future jury.

Any charge against police officers itself has been rare in Dallas County’s history, although that has changed in recent years. Several officers in the county have been criminally charged since 2013. In the city of Dallas proper, former Dallas Officer Rene Villanueva was indicted on charges of official oppression and assault by a grand jury in 2014. Another former Dallas officer, Bryan Burgess, was also indicted that year on a manslaughter charge for running over Fred Bradford with his squad car in 2013.

In 2014, former Dallas officers Amy Wilburn and Cardan Spencer were indicted for nonlethal shootings of civilians that were captured on video. Before Wilburn’s indictment that year, however, not a single officer in the city had been criminally charged for a shooting in more than 40 years.

In other cities in the county, former Farmers Branch Officer Ken Johnson was indicted with murder and aggravated assault in September for fatally shooting a Dallas teen and wounding his friend, and former Garland Officer Patrick Tutor was indicted on manslaughter in 2013 for firing 41 shots at a man during a high-speed chase, three of which struck and killed him. Before Tutor’s indictment, no Dallas County grand jury had indicted any officer in an on-duty shooting in more than 15 years.

But other police-involved cases in the county have returned “no bills” in recent years. Last year, a grand jury no billed four jailers involved in the death of Joseph Hutcheson, who died after a struggle with deputies on the lobby floor of the Lew Sterrett Justice Center in 2015. In April 2015, a grand jury no billed two officers who fatally shot Jason Harrison in 2014. Harrison was experiencing a mental health crisis when his mother called the police for help in getting him to the hospital. Then in May 2015, a grand jury no billed Sgt. Thedrick Andres, an Arlington officer who shot Juan May while off duty in 2014.

Even when an officer is charged in Dallas County, however, a conviction is still unheard of. In April, for instance, jurors acquitted former Dallas Officer Burgess on a lesser charge, negligent homicide, for running over Bradford. Last year, a Dallas County judge declared a mistrial in former Garland Officer Tuter’s case. In 2014, a jury found former Dallas officer Villanueva not guilty. According to Hermus, who heads the Public Integrity Division, trials are still pending in the cases of former Dallas officers Wilburn and Spencer, as well as for former Farmers Branch Officer Johnson and former Garland Officer Tutor.

“It’s the case in Dallas [County] as it is nationally that there are very few prosecutions and then even fewer convictions,” says John Fullinwider, another cofounder of MAPB.

Other national cases have moved forward this month, as federal prosecutors announced that they wouldn’t bring civil rights charges against Baton Rouge police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II in the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling. The case is now being handed to Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry to determine whether state charges will be brought. In South Carolina, former officer Michael Slager pled guilty to violating civil rights when he shot Walter Scott in 2015. In a plea deal, the state has agreed not to file new charges against him.

But other high-profile national cases have seen acquittals after charges have been filed, as in the case of three officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore. The prosecutor’s office later dropped the charges for three other officers involved.

In the Dallas area, police accountability advocates don’t trust either the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office or the Dallas County District Attorney Office’s Civil Rights Unit to fully investigate Edwards’ shooting, believing both offices are structurally too close to area police departments to be truly independent. The Dallas NAACP has joined other voices in calling for more federal oversight, including a federal and state-led investigation into the Balch Springs Police Department.

“I think part of the rush around this is to push forward the narrative of the ‘bad apple’: Get rid of the officer, and handle it swiftly, and ‘justice’ is served,” Mokuria says. “By acting swiftly with one person … you can circumvent a deeper investigation.”

As Truthout has previously reported, the district attorney’s Civil Rights Unit, as it exists now, was proposed and created under former Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins after years of relentless pressure from community organizers, and amid a national spotlight on police violence. Watkins had stressed that the public couldn’t trust the police to investigate themselves, sparking backlash from police groups, especially from the Dallas Police Association — one reason why Watkins may have lost the office to Susan Hawk in November of 2014. Under Hawk, the unit took on a more cooperative tone, with the unit’s then chief telling the Dallas Morning News that they “looked for buy-in from the county’s police departments” when assembling the unit’s team.

But the unit has undergone small changes again under District Attorney Faith Johnson, who is the first African American woman to serve as district attorney in Dallas County. Gov. Greg Abbott appointed her to the office after Hawk resigned in September. Jordan Edwards’ shooting is her first high-profile case since taking office in January. “This case is a top priority for me, and we have at least anywhere from six to eight people working on this case,” Johnson told WFAA.

Hermus has worked under all three district attorneys, and praised the changes made to the Public Integrity Division and its Civil Rights Unit under Watkins and Hawk, saying that the policies and procedures created under Hawk still largely govern how the Civil Rights Unit operates today. He maintained the Civil Rights Unit’s independence, explaining that the unit conducts its own investigation at the scene of the crime, separate from the police department.

“Our biggest weakness right now is that we are critically understaffed to do what our protocols call upon us to do. … There are some cases that we’re hitting right now that are two years old,” he said, telling Truthout that the Civil Rights Unit is only staffed with two people, but that he “loans” himself and another investigator to the unit.

Fullinwider told Truthout that District Attorney Johnson has showed signs of progress, and seems open to dialogue. MAPB met with Johnson in March and pressed her to examine or reexamine about a dozen police-involved cases, and according to Fullinwider, she indicated interest in looking into at least some of the cases. Still, he says the lack of charges in some cases, and convictions in all cases, shows that, “Whether you’re a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat, when it comes to the police, the overwhelming bias is in the police’s favor.”

According to The Washington Post, Edwards was the youngest of 345 people shot and killed by police in the United States so far this year. Last year, 963 people were shot and killed by police according to the Post. Moreover, according to data obtained by the Texas Tribune, nearly 41 percent of people shot at by police in Texas’s 36 largest cities between 2010 and 2015 were Black, despite making up only 14 percent of the population in the cities surveyed — a disproportionate use of force echoing a national trend. In Balch Springs, eight out of 10 police officers in the city are white even though four our of five residents are people of color, according The Dallas Morning News.

These numbers are why MAPB and others want to see independent federal investigators and prosecutors for every fatal police shooting. “There’s way too many [police shootings in the US], but there’s not so many that you couldn’t do that,” Fullinwider says. “Even though we don’t expect a lot out of the Sessions Justice Department, we still think that this is the way to address this problem.”

Candles were lit for Jordan Edwards at the Virgil T. Irwin Park in Balch Springs, Texas, on Saturday, May 6, 2017. (Photo: Candice Bernd)Candles were lit for Jordan Edwards at the Virgil T. Irwin Park in Balch Springs, Texas, on Saturday, May 6, 2017. (Photo: Candice Bernd)Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he plans to review all existing reform agreements between the Department of Justice and police departments across the nation.

At a vigil held in remembrance of Jordan Edwards Thursday night, Mesquite High School student Braylon Monroe, 14, told Truthout he’s been struggling to cope with the loss of Edwards, who was a close friend. Edwards was a teammate of Monroe’s on the Mesquite High football team. Monroe told Truthout that Edwards had texted him an invitation to Saturday night’s party, and even offered him a ride. “When I heard about it, I just busted out to tears. It could have been me,” Monroe said.

Oliver’s firing and warrant don’t mean much to him. “He took a 15 year old’s life for nothing,” Monroe told Truthout, hoping to see a conviction.

Edwards’ cousin, Williams, says that ultimately, he wants to see truth and reconciliation. “We got to get the truth and we got to reconcile that truth, and we got to bring an end to this type of senseless war on our communities,” Williams told Truthout.