In April 2017, when Roy Oliver, a 37-year-old white police officer in Balch Springs, a suburb east of Dallas, shot and killed an unarmed 15-year-old black teenager named Jordan Edwards as he was leaving a party, plenty of Dallas County courthouse veterans predicted that Oliver would never spend a day in prison. “Texas juries don’t convict cops,” one longtime lawyer told me. “They certainly don’t convict them of murder.”
In fact, it had been 44 years since a police officer in Texas had been charged with committing a murder while carrying out his official duties. In 1973, Darrell Cain, a police officer for the city of Dallas, shot 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez in the head while Rodriguez sat handcuffed inside a squad car. Apparently, attempting to solicit a confession, Cain had forced the boy into a version of Russian roulette, holding a gun to his head and then killing him on the second pull of the trigger. Nevertheless, the jury only sentenced Cain to five years in prison, and he was released in half that time.
But in December 2016, only four months before Oliver’s shooting of Edwards, a former state district judge named Faith Johnson was appointed Dallas County district attorney by Governor Greg Abbott. (She replaced Susan Hawk, who had resigned to focus on her mental health.) Johnson was the county’s first black female district attorney. The day she was appointed, she proclaimed that she was going to make the district attorney’s office “the people’s office.” And she clearly saw Edwards’s death as her opportunity to show constituents that she was going to be different than her predecessors. “[This] is a message we’re sending to bad police officers,” she said. “If you do wrong, we will prosecute you.”
A couple of the courthouse veterans I spoke to speculated that Johnson was using the Oliver case to win over black voters for the upcoming November 2018 general election, in which she will be running for reelection as a Republican against John Cruezot, a well-known black Democratic state judge. “If she wins, she’s going to gain a huge amount of credibility,” said one lawyer just before Oliver’s trial began on August 16.
“Texas juries don’t convict cops. They certainly don’t convict them of murder.”
Johnson, however, insisted that the prosecution of Oliver was not a “political statement.” All she wanted, she said, was “justice for Jordan.” In recent years, there had been a series of highly publicized acquittals of cops around the country who had shot young, unarmed black males—including Michael Brown, who was killed in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, and Alton Sterling, who was killed in 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—which in turn had set off angry protests. That wasn’t going to happen in Dallas, Johnson stated. “We believe we have a very strong case, and we’re planning to win.”
It all began when a Balch Springs teenager named Denorris Rhodes learned that his single mom was going to be out of town for the weekend. Denorris, a funny, cocky kid who describes himself on his Facebook page as “the boss at Being Awesome,” decided to throw a party while she was gone. He typed up an invitation and posted it on Instagram. The post read: “Party Next Door!”
Within minutes, Denorris’s friends were texting him, asking if the party was for real. The next day, just about everyone at Balch Springs High School was talking about it. The news spread to the high schools in Mesquite, another Dallas suburb that butts up against Balch Springs. A freshman at Mesquite High School, Jordan Edwards, learned that his new girlfriend was going to be there with her friends. He asked his older brother and stepbrother, Kevon and Vidal, who were seventeen, if they would take him to the party.
Jordan was nicknamed “Peanut” because he was so small. He played on the football team, but according to his stepmother Charmaine, he was “more interested in academics.” He had a 3.5 grade point average and he never missed a day of school. He sometimes brought his Bible to school to read. “He was just a good kid,” his father, Odell Edwards, would later tell a reporter. “You do something for him, anything, and he’d just smile.”
On Saturday, April 29, 2017—the day of Denorris’s party—Jordan, Vidal, and Kevon did their regular Saturday-morning chores, cleaning their bedrooms and vacuuming the house. That afternoon, they asked their father if they could borrow his car, a 2004 Chevrolet Impala with tinted windows, to go to Denorris’s home, which was only three miles away. “You have to be back by midnight,” Odell said. “And absolutely no drinking and no drugs. I don’t want you getting into trouble.” “Yes, sir,” the three teenagers said.
Vidal drove. They picked up two of their friends, twin brothers Maximus and Maxwell Everette. They stopped at a convenience store where Jordan bought chips, a strawberry lemonade, and gum so that his breath would be fresh for his girlfriend.
At around 9:30 p.m., they arrived at the party. The street was packed with cars. More than a hundred kids, maybe 150, were either inside the small, one-story brick house or hanging out in the front or back yards. Jordan, his brothers, and their friends paid the two-dollar-a-person entry fee. Rap music was blasting. Although Denorris had moved the furniture out of the living room, the house was still so crowded that anyone who wanted to dance “had to mosh pit,” said Maxwell Everette.
Jordan, who was wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt, found his girlfriend. They stood close to one another in a hallway and talked. Jordan’s brothers and friends spread out and caught up with people they knew. “Everyone was joyful and happy,” said Jordan’s brother Vidal. “Everyone was having a good time.”
At 11 p.m., a neighbor called 911, complaining that drunken teens were in the street. Within minutes, two Balch Springs police officers, Tyler Gross and Roy Oliver, showed up in separate squad cars. “Twelve, twelve, twelve!” some of the partygoers shouted. (“Twelve” is slang in hip-hop music for police; it comes from the old television cop series, Adam-12, which ran from 1968 to 1975.) “Here come the twelve!”
Both Gross and Oliver were muscular Army vets who had done combat tours in Iraq. Both of the officers were white. Almost all of the partygoers were black. Nevertheless, on the officers’ body camera videos, there seemed to be little racial tension. Oliver politely asked the teenagers to disperse. “Let’s keep moving, let’s keep moving,” he said. As the kids streamed out of the house, Oliver jokingly said to Gross, “It’s like a sardine can. They just keep coming out.”
Seventeen minutes after Gross and Oliver arrived, a gray SUV pulled into the parking lot of a nursing home located a couple of blocks from Denorris’s house. Inside the SUV were four or five teenage gang members who called themselves the Bank Brothers. Eric Knight, a teenager who had gone to the party and who had also parked at the nursing home, was standing by his car when the Bank Brothers arrived. Knight said they lowered their windows and started “flexing” (slang for showing off), shouting lines like, “The Bank Brothers are here!” A couple of the gang members—including the gang’s leader, who went by the alias “Tupac”—stepped out of the SUV, raised pistols over their heads, and started firing: twelve shots in all.
Kids suddenly began screaming and running. Gross dashed outside, shouting into his wireless lapel microphone, “Shots fired!” Oliver also ran out of the house. He stopped at his squad car and grabbed his rifle—an MC5 semi-automatic carbine, much like an AR-15—and raced after Gross. They were not told by anyone that the Bank Brothers had shown up. All they knew, Gross said, was that “an active shooter” was on the loose and that it was their job “to find the shooter and protect potential victims.”
Gross saw a black Chevrolet Impala backing away from him. Inside were Vidal, who was driving, Jordan, who was in the front passenger seat, and Kevon and the Everette twins, who were in the backseat. They had decided to leave the party and drive home to avoid any trouble.
Gross shined his flashlight at the car but did not identify himself as a police officer. He yelled, “Stop the car! Stop the fucking car!” Vidal didn’t stop. He put the car into drive and steered away from Gross. The officer was still able to get close enough to hit the rear window with the butt of his pistol, accidentally shattering the glass, but Vidal kept going. At that point, Oliver was ten to fifteen feet away. He raised his rifle and in less than a second fired five rounds at the car. Four of the bullets hit the car itself. But one of the bullets went through the front passenger window and tore through Jordan’s head, killing him instantly.
Three days later, Balch Springs police chief Jonathan Haber, saying he was making “the most difficult decision of my professional career,” fired Oliver. The chief described Oliver as a friend and a fellow veteran. He said he admired Oliver’s devotion to law enforcement. But when asked if he believed Oliver had committed a crime, Haber had no comment. He only said Oliver had been fired for violating a department policy that prohibits an officer from shooting at a moving vehicle that is traveling away from him.
Oliver was unquestionably devoted to law enforcement. Raised by a single mother, a school librarian, in Fort Worth—his father went to prison when Oliver was in the second grade—he started working for the volunteer fire department and later for the police department in Dalworthington Gardens, a bedroom community near Fort Worth, in 1999, when he was twenty years old.
He joined the Army in 2004, and after his honorable discharge in 2009—he rose to the rank of sergeant—he returned to work for the Dalworthington Gardens Police Department. In 2011, he applied for jobs with other departments. A psychological test that he took for the Balch Springs Police Department concluded that he had an “elevated score” on the “risk-taking index.” According to the examiner who evaluated Oliver’s test, “He may feel so insensitive to threat that his judgment may be impaired in evaluating the risk of danger… His sense of entitlement may be so strong that the possibility of his behaving in an antisocial manner must be considered.”
Nevertheless, police chief Haber liked the fact that Oliver had an admirable military record—Oliver even had received a good conduct medal—and he brought him onto the force as a patrol officer.
There were times when Oliver acted like a model cop. He periodically spoke to Balch Springs youth groups and sports teams, “encouraging us to be the best people we could be, on and off the field,” said Elizabeth Greer, who played soccer at Balch Springs High School and was so inspired by Oliver’s speeches that she is now studying criminal justice in college, with hopes to become a Balch Springs police officer herself.
At the small Balch Springs apartment complex where he lived, he acted as the unofficial security guard, “watching out for all of us,” said Billie Gorwood, the owner of the complex. “He made it his business to befriend those tenants who had mood problems. He was a Pied Piper to the kids. He was disciplined and kind. He wanted to help and to protect.”
Fellow Balch Springs cops also liked him. “I’ve never seen Roy Oliver treat anybody in any other way than I’d want my own family to be treated,” said David Fields, a black officer who has been with the department since 2009. “I’ve never seen him be demeaning to anybody.” Raymond Keener, the department’s K9 officer, said that when he went out on assignments with his police dog, he always wanted Oliver to back him up. “I trusted him,” said Keener. “He was dependable. I knew he’d be there.”
But there were times when Oliver was impatient and temperamental. In October 2013, after working an overnight shift, he arrived one morning at the Dallas County courthouse to testify at a DWI trial. When the trial finally began after several delays, he was called to the stand. Oliver was exhausted and unhappy. While testifying in front of the jury, he snapped at the prosecutor, “I don’t understand the fucking question. What was that again?” During a break, he stormed off the stand and left the courthouse (he later returned), and the district attorney’s office filed a complaint against Oliver. His superiors suspended him for sixteen hours without pay and required him to attend anger management classes.
And then there was the curious incident that took place on April 16, 2017, just two weeks before the shooting of Jordan Edwards. A young woman rear-ended Oliver’s pickup truck at an intersection in south Dallas. According to the woman and her sister, who was in the passenger seat, Oliver, who was off duty and out of uniform, got out of his truck, pulled a gun from his holster, and pointed it at them. When Dallas police officers arrived, Oliver told them the women had been yelling and acting erratically. He said he had lifted his shirt and shown his badge, which was attached to his belt, and he also admitted he had withdrawn his gun. But he said that he had held it next to his chest and never pointed it at the women. The police officers didn’t make any arrests and sent Oliver and the two women on their way.
Was Oliver in some way spiraling out of control in April 2017? Had something happened that had made him want to shoot somebody? After Jordan’s death, prosecutors looked into Oliver’s personal life, but they found nothing. Still, they were convinced that Oliver was slightly unhinged: a cop who had indeed gotten carried away with his sense of entitlement. During opening arguments at the trial, first assistant district attorney Michael Snipes, a crusty, hard-nosed ex-military man who headed the prosecution team, went so far as to tell the jury, “Roy Oliver was angry. He was dangerous. No reasonable officer would have engaged that car, but he already had made up his mind that he was going to shoot.”
Oliver was being represented by three well-regarded defense attorneys from Fort Worth: Jim Lane, Bob Gill, and Miles Brissette. (They reportedly were paid by a Texas patrol officer’s union.) In his opening argument, Gill told the jury that Oliver was not dangerous at all. He had to make a split-second decision whether to fire into that Impala, “and you’re going to have to decide whether Roy Oliver’s behavior was reasonable during that split second. Was his behavior reasonable from what he knew was going on at that time?”
The trial took place in the cramped courtroom of state District Judge Brandon Birmingham. The left side of the gallery was reserved for Jordan’s friends and members of his family. His father and stepmother, Odell and Charmaine, sat in the front row, listening intently to every word of testimony, leaving the courtroom only before photos showing Jordan after he had been shot were flashed on a screen. The right side of the gallery was filled with members of the press, general spectators, and Oliver’s mother Linda, who sat in the front row directly behind him. Oliver’s wife, Ingrid, a native of Ecuador with whom he has a young son, Tab, who suffers from autism, was there for a day or two of testimony. (The twice-divorced Oliver also has a four-year-old daughter.) Oliver wore well-fitting suits, pressed shirts, and perfectly knotted ties. He was very serious. He didn’t smile. He said little to his attorneys. A Dallas Morning News reporter noticed that his bald head “shone under the lights of the courtroom.”
The jury consisted of two white men and ten women. Five of the women were white, two were black, and three were Hispanic. Many of the women were mothers, which trial observers believed was a good sign for the prosecution. In what looked like an obvious attempt to play to the female jurors, the first witness called to the stand was Charmaine, who had raised Jordan since he was two. She said Jordan always took the time to watch television with her. “Nobody else would watch Lifetime with me except Jordan,” Charmaine said, tears trickling down her face.
Wearing a shirt and tie, Jordon’s brother Vidal took the stand, told the jury about the party, and testified that when he heard gunshots in the nursing home parking lot, he simply wanted to get away. “I was in fear for my life. I just wanted to get home and get everybody safe.” He said that he didn’t know who was yelling at him to stop the car and that he certainly didn’t think it was cops. “Police don’t talk like that,” Vidal explained. “The profanity. Police don’t say that, especially not to kids.”
Vidal told the jurors that he’d had no idea who shot five times at the Impala. He said he turned and saw Jordan slumped forward in his seat, blood pouring out of his head, his bottle of strawberry lemonade still between his legs. Within minutes, he, Kevon, and the Everette twins were ordered out of the car by other Balch Springs police officers who had just arrived. The jury watched the video from one of the officers’ bodycams as the boys put their hands on their heads and walked backward away from the car. “Please, sir, my little brother’s dead in the car,” Vidal pleaded with one officer. “He’s dead in there.” Later, Vidal asked that officer if they could pray together for Jordan. He said he wanted to ask God to watch over his little brother.
There was more heartbreaking testimony. Maxwell Everette said that when he first saw the red stain on Jordan’s shirt, he initially thought his friend had spilled his strawberry lemonade. “Then I realized it was blood,” he said, so overcome with emotion that he couldn’t say another word.
But just as defense attorney Gill had declared in opening arguments, the essential question for the jury to decide was exactly what Oliver was thinking when he began firing his rifle. Based on what he knew at the time, was the shooting justified? Or, as first assistant attorney Snipes insisted, was Oliver “completely unreasonable and totally out of line”?
The video from Gross’s and Oliver’s bodycams did reveal that Vidal was driving the Impala away at a slight angle from the two officers when Oliver started shooting. And in a striking moment of courtroom drama, Gross himself testified that he did not feel in fear of his life as the Impala went past him.
Much has been written in recent years about the “blue wall of silence”; cops rarely testify against their partners, and cases in recent years have shown to what extent some police officers have been willing to go to protect their own. (Take, for instance, the officers charged with conspiracy to cover up the killing of Laquan McDonald in Chicago in 2017.) If Gross had simply testified that he had feared for his life, the jurors would no doubt have had a difficult time convicting Oliver.
But Gross also testified that he didn’t feel any need to fire his weapon at the Impala as Oliver had. “I just wanted them to stop,” he said.
Oliver’s lawyers suggested that from where Oliver was standing, it looked as if the Impala was about to hit Gross. The sound of the window breaking, they added, furthered Oliver’s belief that Gross was in danger. In fact, as soon as he fired off all five of those shots, which took less than a second, Oliver’s bodycam recorded him yelling at Gross, “He was trying to hit you!”
Both sides presented law enforcement experts who specialized in deadly force issues. A former FBI agent said that from the moment Oliver retrieved his rifle from his squad car until he fired the shots at the Impala—a total of nine seconds—he had “plenty of time to see that Officer Gross was not in danger.” A captain at the Harris County Sheriff’s office made a different argument—that in the darkness, with panicked kids running in every direction and Gross screaming at the top of his lungs at a car refusing to stop, Oliver’s decision to shoot was “reasonable.”
The defense called Oliver himself to the stand. Wearing a green tie and gray suit, with a pin on the lapel that read “Autism,” Oliver looked at the jurors and calmly recalled the events of that night. He said that after he heard the gunshots coming from the nursing home, he went to get his rifle “because I didn’t know how many shooters there were.” As he ran toward Gross, he saw a pistol in Gross’s right hand, “moving from side to side.” Oliver said he figured Gross “had located the shooter or shooters. My hearing and eyesight told me that something was going on with this car and I had to go help him.”
Oliver said he could not see who was inside the Impala, but he was adamant that he had no choice but to fire at it. “The car came forward toward my partner, and as it was gaining ground towards him, I had no other option but to use lethal force. The car was a deadly weapon. It was about to hit my partner.”
In the same calm voice—Oliver is not an outwardly emotional man—he said he felt “sick to [his] stomach” and “heartbroken” to learn that he had killed Jordan. “I was in shock. I was in shock for days,” he said.
A few minutes later, after taking a sip of water, he placed the blame for Jordan’s death directly on Jordan’s brother Vidal. He said if Vidal had “just listened” and stopped the car, “this shooting wouldn’t have happened.”
A few minutes later, after taking a sip of water, Oliver placed the blame for Jordan’s death directly on Jordan’s brother Vidal.
If Oliver was trying to show the jury that he really did feel some remorse, he didn’t do a very good job. Perhaps sensing that the jurors were not connecting with the defendant, defense attorney Lane decided in his closing argument to have Oliver stand and face the jury while Lane described Oliver’s battlefield heroism in Iraq, his devotion to police work, and his love of his wife and his children. Oliver, said Lane, was “a protector.” Lane’s co-counsel Gill reiterated the defense’s position that even if it turned out Gross was not in any danger, Oliver was the ultimate loyal partner “who reasonably believed at the time that he needed to use deadly force.”
But in his final argument, Snipes let loose, describing Oliver as “an angry, out-of-control, trigger-happy walking time bomb.” He said that the bodycam videos irrefutably proved that Oliver did not shoot at the Impala after hearing Gross break the Impala’s back window. Oliver’s first shot came only .358 seconds after the window broke, Snipes said. Obviously, he had already made up his mind to shoot before Gross broke the window. And then he kept shooting at the car as it passed Gross.
Only by the grace of God, said Snipes, were the other boys not hit. “You could have had five murders,” Snipes snarled, giving Oliver an unblinking stare.
The jurors went off to deliberate, which ultimately took them thirteen hours. They had the option to convict Oliver of murder, manslaughter, or aggravated assault with a weapon by a public servant. When they announced they had a verdict, a dozen sheriff’s deputies came into the courtroom to prevent any outbursts among the spectators. A bailiff passed the written verdict to Judge Birmingham. Oliver rose with his lawyers. Birmingham then informed him that he had been found guilty of murder.
Accompanied by sheriff’s deputies, Oliver was escorted out a side door as his wife and his mother left the courtroom in tears. In the hallway, members of Jordan’s family and their friends embraced. Some held up their hands and cried, “Praise God.” District Attorney Faith Johnson hugged Charmaine and Odell. The Edwards family’s attorney, Daryl Washington, stood before a cluster of reporters and television cameras and said, “This case is not just about Jordan. It’s about Tamir Rice, it’s about Walter Scott, it’s about Alton Sterling. It’s about every African American who has been killed and has not gotten justice.”
Around the country, people were flabbergasted that a white cop in Texas had been brought down for killing a black kid. Oliver’s conviction was the lead story that afternoon on all three of the major television networks’ newscasts. Even Texas governor Greg Abbott found the verdict significant enough to tweet about it: “White Texas police officer found guilty of murder for fatally shooting black teen in car. This life should never have been lost.”
Meanwhile, back in Birmingham’s courtroom, the jury began deciding Oliver’s punishment. Oliver’s lawyers had his friends, coworkers, a soldier who served with him in Iraq, his mother, and his wife take the stand to extol his virtues. His mother begged the jury to give him the minimum five-year sentence so that he could get probation within two years and be with his young son. “The State of Texas is going to tell you Roy is evil and twisted, but that isn’t the case,” Gill told the jury. “What was Roy Oliver’s motive to shoot? Vengeance? Hatred? It wasn’t any of those things. He didn’t know who Jordan Edwards was. His motive was to protect his partner.”
In closing punishment arguments, District Attorney Johnson, who had sat through the entire trial, reminded the jurors that they faced a daunting task sending Oliver, whom she called “a killer in blue,” to prison. Striding across the courtroom, sounding like an evangelical preacher, she said, “For last sixteen months, I have wondered whether or not a jury would be as brave as me and my team—not only to find Roy Oliver guilty, but to give him the right and proper punishment. I’ve stayed up late at night and gotten up early, wondering whether you have the courage, whether you are brave enough.”
Then Snipes rose and went after Oliver again, this time describing him as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: friendly one day, ferocious the next. He brought up a 2013 Facebook message that Oliver had posted, which read, “I’ll never in my life be as good at anything else as I am at killing people.” (Earlier, Oliver had testified that he had reposted the message from another military veteran to let people know the difficulties some veterans had in readjusting to civilian life.) “He’s dangerous and out of control, and if you don’t protect society against him, it’s on you,” Snipes snapped at the jurors. He recommended that they send Oliver to prison for sixty years. “If you want to give him credit for military service, you can do that,” Snipes said, “or if you want to give him credit for the fact that he has no criminal record, you can do that too. But don’t you go below sixty years. If you give him some weak sentence, this is bound to happen again, because this is what this defendant likes doing.”
The jurors seemed unsure about what to do. After five and a half hours of deliberation—a long time for the punishment phase of a trial—they finally agreed to a fifteen-year sentence (one year for every year that Jordan lived) and a $10,000 fine.
Both sides were disappointed. One woman, stunned that a jury would hand out such a short sentence for a first-degree murder charge, walked out of the courtroom shouting, “Not enough! Not enough!” Another of Jordan’s supporters noted that Oliver will only be 53 years old when he’s released—if he’s not released earlier on parole—while Jordan will still be dead.
For his part, Gill said he was worried about what might happen to Oliver during his prison stint. “A former Texas peace officer is not going to have an easy time being in the Texas penitentiary system,” he said. Gill added that he had already filed notice of appeal over what he believed were “significant errors” made at trial by the judge, and that he felt confident the verdict would be overturned.
At a press conference, District Attorney Johnson did her best to act upbeat, describing the trial itself as “historic.” And considering that there hadn’t been a trial like this in Dallas in 45 years, she could very well be right. Washington, the Edwards family’s attorney, said he was optimistic that, regardless of the length of Oliver’s sentence, life for black kids in the Dallas area will begin to change. “The guilty verdict now gives young boys and girls some sense of safety that their lives matter,” he said. “They can now walk the streets and feel that if they are ever confronted by a bad police officer, there is going to be some sense of justice.”
Maybe, maybe not. As long as there are police officers who operate with a bias against young black males, there will be cases of police brutality. Indeed, said Lee Merritt, a Dallas civil rights attorney who’s also worked with the Edwards family, Oliver’s trial was “at best a trickle of justice. There’s still so far to go.”
But as Johnson said, at least it was a start. “What we showed here in Dallas was that you can be committed to justice and fairness for everyone—that you can do something about bad cops. We made sure Jordan got justice. And that, I believe, is a very good thing.”