Roy Oliver got jail time for killing Jordan Edwards. Is widespread police accountability next?
The former Balch Springs, Texas, patrolman who fatally shot 15-year-old Jordan Edwards in the head with an AR-15 in 2017 was sentenced to 15 years in prison Wednesday night, despite pleas for mercy to jurors from his mother and wife.
Oliver’s half sister, Wendy Oliver, shocked the court Wednesday by testifying against her own brother during his sentencing hearings, urging jurors to send him to jail for life.
Prosecutor Mike Snipes said the outcome of this case should restore public trust in the American justice system by demonstrating that bad officers will be held criminally accountable.
“We believe this case shows if a rogue policeman gets out of line that we will prosecute you,” Snipes said Thursday. “I think that justice was done in the case. All we cared about was Jordan Edwards and his family.”
The Edwards family’s civil attorney, Lee Merritt, who is representing the late teen’s parents in a planned civil suit against the city of Balch Springs, said Oliver’s conviction and 15-year sentence are a “huge deal” for the country.
“It does set a precedent,” Merritt said during an interview. “We need cases like this to exist on the books.”
Oliver’s defense attorneys have already announced plans to appeal his conviction, but Merritt says that appeal is unlikely to succeed.
“His attorneys would have to find some evidence that was new that was not discoverable previously, or some misconduct on behalf of the prosecutors,” Merritt said. “Despite this being a really important case, it’s very limited [in terms of the evidentiary elements that determined its outcome].”
Oliver’s case would have to make it through a lengthy Texas criminal court appeals process and be ruled on by the state’s supreme court before his attorneys could bring it before a federal circuit court judge, and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It’s going to change the law if it’s appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court,” Merritt said. “Texas is certainly one of the worst places for civil rights litigation in the country. We’re always concerned about a judge that has conservative leanings who supports law enforcement creating a roadblock, but that would have had to happen at the trial level, even in Texas.”
The lasting impact of this rare kind of murder conviction is still debatable, in part because Jordan Edwards was what multiple attorneys referred to as the “perfect victim” — an unarmed honor roll student and popular athlete with no criminal record who was beloved by everyone in his community.
“Our victim was a beautiful, perfect kid who had a remarkable life ahead of him,” Snipes said. “We felt like the defendant was the converse of that.”
Merritt said people needlessly killed by police shouldn’t have to be saints for their killers to be held criminally accountable — but it certainly helped in Edwards’ case.
“We need the Jordan Edwards of the world, unfortunately,” he said. “When the civil rights movement was started, Claudette Colvin was the first woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, but Rosa Parks had to come forward, who was loved by her community and had no blemishes. They used her case to upset Montgomery, which then changed the world.”
Since 2005, there have been thousands of people killed by police, yet only 93 non-federal law enforcement officers have been arrested for murder or manslaughter for an on-duty shooting, according to Bowling Green State University criminal justice Professor Philip Stinson, whose research focuses on crimes committed by police officers.
According to Stinson, of those 93 arrested officers, only 33 have been convicted of a crime resulting from those shootings. Sixteen of those officers took a plea deal and seventeen were convicted by a jury.
The only other officer found guilty of murder in the last 13 years is former Rocky Ford, Colorado, Police Officer James Ashby, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison in October 2016 for the fatal shooting of Jack Jacquez.
“In the cases where an officer has been convicted, it is often for a lesser offense,” Stinson said Thursday. “Roy Oliver testified in his own defense at his trial. Anecdotally, I can tell you over the last several years when that happens, the officers are generally acquitted or they have a hung jury or a mistrial.”
Former University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing testified in his own defense twice during two separate trials that resulted in hung juries after Tensing fatally shot an unarmed Sam DuBose on July 19, 2015.
Tensing told jurors that he feared DuBose was going to run him over with his car during a traffic stop. Footage from Tensing’s body camera didn’t back up his story, compelling UC police to fire him. Earlier this year, Tensing received a police union grievance settlement of almost $350,000 from UC for terminating his employment.
Former North Charleston, South Carolina, Police Officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges in 2017. Slager’s criminal prosecution for fatally shooting Walter Scott in the back while Scott was running away from the officer resulted in a mistrial after he testified in his own defense — even though the shooting was captured on video by a witness’s cell phone camera.
Edwards, DuBose and Scott are all black and all three were unarmed when they were killed.
Oliver’s conviction may be encouraging to police reform advocates, but Stinson doesn’t think this one case says anything definitive about changes in how the criminal justice system treats officers accused of homicides.
“Policing is very static,” Stinson said. “I don’t think the Oliver case would have much of an effect. We see roughly the same number of shootings each year. We don’t seem to see much change in terms of the conviction rate in these cases. They’re very difficult cases to obtain convictions from prosecutors.”
Still, Merritt said Oliver’s conviction and sentencing are a step in the right direction. Since the officer’s fate was announced Wednesday, Merritt said he’s seen many people on social media complaining that Oliver’s sentence was too lenient. He’s eligible for parole after 7.5 years, but Merritt said it’s unlikely Oliver will be released before the end of his full sentence.
“He will be a cop behind bars,” Merritt said. “He’s going to have a really tough time in there. It’s unlikely he’ll make it seven and a half years without doing something to survive that will make it difficult for him to get parole. The inmates will realize he’s up for parole and they’re going to be egging him on to get marks on his record that will not allow for his release.”
Jordan Edwards’ family was happy Oliver was convicted, but were disappointed he didn’t get a life sentence, according to Merritt, who sees the outcome of the case as a victory.
“I know it’s difficult for black folks to recognize a win as a win sometimes because we’ve been so abused in this country,” Merritt said. “I don’t want to delegitimize their concerns, but people came together and moved heaven and earth to achieve this conviction. We should at least acknowledge the progress even if we’re not satisfied, which we shouldn’t be.”