Dallas County DA Is Battling Odds in Seeking a Murder Conviction Against Officer Who Killed Jordan Edwards

The case against Balch Spring ex-police officer Roy Oliver looks pretty serious, and District Attorney Faith Johnson said as much this week. On Monday, she called a news conference to announce his indictment for murder in the April shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards. Getting a conviction, though, is a different matter. Johnson has a big boulder to push uphill. "It is a message we're sending to bad police officers," said Johnson, who was accompanied by the teen's family. "If you do wrong, we will prosecute you." Later, though, as the case carves its glacial path through the justice system, it won't be so simple. "Wrong," and "justified," and "use of force" will be parsed into minute fragments, each carrying a carefully calibrated weight that grows much more complicated in the courtroom. The elements of the teenager's death are tragically familiar: an unarmed black male shot and killed by a white police officer in an encounter that unfolded in less time than it takes to read this sentence. A grieving family. An outraged community. Video that seems to clinch the case. But the fury that surrounds these incidents rarely reaches the jury room. Even when high-profile police-involved shootings clear the hurdle of a grand jury indictment, they almost invariably end in plea bargains, hung juries or outright acquittal. "[J]urors are very reluctant to second-guess the split-second life-or-death decisions that a police officer makes," said Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminologist who himself is a former police officer, in an interview with ABC News. Juries, he added, "are unwilling to conclude that an on-duty police officer could be a murderer." To the public, this scenario is reduced to a binomial black-versus-blue confrontation, with white (or mostly white) jurors reflexively taking the blue side. That's an oversimplification. Yes, the role played by race is impossible to ignore, but the complexities of the law, the justice system and the rules jurors are bound to follow often don't leave them much room for emotional interpretation. Juries tend to acquit police officers. But they're not always happy about it. In May, a Tulsa jury hastily left the courthouse after acquitting police officer Betty Shelby of manslaughter in the shooting death last September of unarmed motorist Terence Crutcher. A few days later, the jury foreman - who, like other jurors in the case, has asked to remain unidentified - forwarded a public letter that elaborated on the thinking that went into the decision. According to the foreman, "many on the jury could never get comfortable with the concept of Betty Shelby being blameless for Mr. Crutcher's death." Nevertheless, the letter continues, "the Jury was forced by the rule of law to render a not guilty verdict," because it was impossible to disprove Shelby's testimony that she acted in accordance with her training when she fired because she feared for her and her fellow officer's lives when Crutcher reached toward his idling vehicle.What was extraordinary about the letter was that the jury made no secret of its doubts about Shelby's behavior. Jurors, the foreman said, "question her judgment as a law enforcement officer." But jurors aren't law enforcement officers. As the Shelby jury's letter makes clear, they're hesitant to substitute their own judgment for that of trained police officers; they're reluctant to second-guess those split-second, life-or-death decisions. There's a certain humility in the letter as jurors admit as much. Yet there's a measure of defensiveness, too: We had to follow strict legal guidelines, they seemed to say. We had no choice. Terence Crutcher's death didn't cost Shelby her freedom. It was the end of her job, though: Parked on a desk assignment since her acquittal, Shelby recently announced her resignation from the Tulsa Police Department. It probably doesn't matter much to the dead man's family. Nor does it matter to the families of Philando Castile, or of Walter Scott, or of Tamir Rice, or of countless others.If Roy Oliver's case reaches a courtroom, it will hinge on whether jurors believe his claim that he feared for his or his partner's life when he fired into a moving car, striking Jordan Edwards in the head and killing him instantly. In a response filed this week to a civil suit filed by the teenager's family, Oliver claimed his actions were "objectively reasonable" - a key phrase that echoes the standard set out by the Supreme Court in police use-of-force cases. And it's a challenge for jurors to put themselves into an officer's shoes, to decide what would be "reasonable" behavior in a similarly stressful, fast-moving situation. It's hard to imagine a more sympathetic, more deeply mourned victim than Edwards: young, popular, innocent, much loved. It's hard to understand why Oliver shot into a moving car as it drove away from him, or why the public was initially told that the car had been moving toward officers. Hard to understand all the way around. Harder still to know what a jury will do.Johnson is staking a lot on this case, and she has a tough road ahead. It doesn't mean she's wrong to try.   Continue reading...

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