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Murder Trial To Begin For Former Balch Springs Officer Who Killed Jordan Edwards

LM Otero
Slain teen Jordan Edwards' mother Charmaine Edwards, left, speaks to supporters with son Vidal Allen, right, and husband Odell Edwards during a protest outside the courthouse in Dallas in May 2017.

A murder trial for a former Texas police officer who killed a black teenager highlights the heightened role video evidence plays in high-profile police shootings that have stirred discourse and triggered protests nationwide over issues of race and law enforcement.

Former Balch Springs officer Roy Oliver, who is white, opened fire last year into a moving car filled with five black teens, killing 15-year-old high school freshman Jordan Edwards.

Oliver, 38, joined the department in 2011 but was fired after the fatal shooting, which was thrust into a national conversation about police killings of African Americans.

The jury trial is scheduled to begin Thursday in Dallas, though Oliver's defense attorneys on Wednesday filed an emergency stay to delay its start. A spokesperson for the Dallas County district attorney's office said the trial is expected to last about two weeks.

Following the shooting, the Balch Springs police chief reported that police video had contradicted his agency's original statement on the incident. Police first said the vehicle backed up toward officers "in an aggressive manner," but police later reported video showed the vehicle was moving forward as officers, after responding to a report of underage drinking at a house party, approached.

Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago defense attorney, said he does not see any downsides for prosecutors heading into the case, particularly because it will be heard in front of a jury instead of a judge. Judges, he said, often seem more lenient to police officers.

Credit Parker County Sheriff's Office via AP
The mugshot of fired Balch Springs police officer Roy Oliver after being booked on a murder charge in May 2017 for fatally shooting 15-year-old Jordan Edwards.

Other legal experts said securing a conviction against an officer is a challenge because criminal culpability in these cases is subjective and jurors are more inclined to believe police testimony.

Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who tracks police shootings, said officers can testify they were in fear for their life, and jurors are often reluctant to second-guess the decisions of an officer faced with an intense street encounter.

By Stinson's count, there have been 93 non-federal law enforcement officers since 2005 arrested for murder or manslaughter in on-duty fatal shootings as of Monday.

Even when armed with video evidence, attorneys can fail to deliver a conviction against an officer, he said.

"Video alone is not (going to) win the case for prosecutors," he said.

While video evidence cannot be altered, Pissetzky said defense attorneys can try to change the way jurors perceive the footage by telling the story through an officer's viewpoint.

"Even a video can be watched in a couple of different ways," he said.

In the Balch Springs criminal case, Oliver's attorneys have said Edwards' death was a tragedy, but that evidence will show Oliver "reacted properly." According to court records, Oliver said he and his partner feared for their lives when the car carrying the teens sped past them.

Oliver has a history of hostile and aggressive behavior and "flipped off" the vehicle that held Edwards' body following the shooting, according to court filings from the Dallas County district attorney's office tied to the criminal case. Oliver, while in the eighth grade, posted swastikas in public places, hated anyone who was not Caucasian and was also a member of the group "Caucasians in Effect," the court filing says.

In 2013, he was "uncooperative and used profanity" while testifying in trial, according to the records, and "communicated aggressively" and used profanity with prosecutors that same day.

Oliver's legal troubles extend beyond the murder trial. A lawsuit has been filed over the shooting, and Oliver has been indicted in a separate 2017 incident in which police said he drew a weapon after he was rear-ended while off duty.