Convictions of violent cops who kill Black people prove elusive. Dallas is becoming an exception
Two bailiffs stood before a massive Texas flag, clutching their duty belts, as the judge glimpsed over at the cop charged with killing 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, a Black high school student. The courtroom went silent.
“We the jury,” the judge said, reading the verdict in the murder case of Roy Oliver, a police officer in a suburb east of Dallas, “unanimously find the defendant guilty of murder.”
In that moment, those last three words — “guilty of murder” — stunned Charmaine Edwards, Jordan’s mother. And when she thinks back to the 2018 conviction of the officer who fired his rifle into a car of unarmed Black teenagers and killed her child the year before, she can hardly believe the outcome — one that so many other families deserve, she says, but never receive.
“So many of these murders, so many Black men and boys killed by police never see justice,” she said on a recent evening. “I’m just glad there was some form of justice for my son.”
In the weeks since the killing of George Floyd, whose body went limp after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck, the nation’s grief followed as a now devastatingly common pattern played out.
First came the cellphone video and family members weeping on TV, then the protests and rousing speeches from lawyers and civil rights activists.
But then came the step that in the past has infrequently happened: Prosecutors filed criminal charges against the police officers.
Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, stands accused of second-degree murder, while three other officers at the scene on May 25 face aiding-and-abetting charges. And last month, prosecutors in Atlanta swiftly charged the officer who shot Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot with felony murder. In Louisville, Ky., and across the nation, protesters continue to demand criminal prosecution of a now-fired officer who burst into Breonna Taylor’s home with a no-knock warrant and fatally shot the 26-year-old emergency medical technician.
While the filing of criminal charges against an officer has in the past been unusual, convictions have proved even more rare.
“Historically,” said Pamela Metzger, director of the Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, “jurors have been sympathetic toward police officers, giving them the benefit of every doubt.”
While the size and prolonged nature of recent demonstrations may indicate a cultural shift, Metzger said, it is unclear whether the ferment will translate into more guilty verdicts against police officers who kill citizens.
If it does, Dallas County could prove an early indicator of that shift.
Since 2018, juries here have convicted two police officers of murder — Oliver, who shot Jordan Edwards, and Amber Guyger, the officer who killed Botham Jean, 26, inside his own apartment, which she said she mistook for her own on a lower floor. (Guyger is serving 10 years. Oliver received a 15-year sentence.)
For Charmaine Edwards, the tragic Saturday night in April 2017 replays in her mind daily like a horror movie.
Jordan and his older brothers — Kevon and Vidal, both then 17 — cleaned their bedrooms and vacuumed the house. That evening, the boys asked if they could go to a party three miles away in nearby Balch Springs. Their father agreed but told them to be home by midnight.
When they arrived at the house party about 10 p.m., other teenagers were dancing and taking turns trying to impress one another with their plans for the summer.
Within an hour, Officer Oliver and his partner showed up, responding to a noise complaint. While inside the house breaking up the party, Oliver — a six-year veteran of the department — said he heard gunshots outside. He hurried out to his patrol car, grabbed an MC5 rifle and soon began firing into the car where Jordan sat in the front passenger’s seat as it pulled away.
“His life was taken without regard,” Edwards said.
The two convictions in Dallas County came after decades of cops shooting unarmed Black men and not facing any criminal charges.
Before Oliver’s conviction, the last time a police officer was convicted of murder in Dallas County was in 1973.
That year, Darrell Cain, a white officer, shot and killed 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez, a Mexican American boy who sat handcuffed in a patrol car as police investigated calls about an alleged burglary. While in the backseat of the car, prosecutors say, Cain forced the boy to play a “Russian roulette”-style game while trying to get a confession.
Cain was sentenced to five years in prison.
Three years earlier, Cain had shot to death unarmed Black 18-year-old Michael Morehead, who was allegedly fleeing the scene of a burglary. Morehead was struck by bullets fired by Cain and his partner.
John Fullinwider, a longtime Dallas activist, says the murder of Santos has “haunted this city ever since.”
“He is a ghost who stands at every door, who we remember every time a cop kills another person,” Fullinwider said.
Since Santos’ slaying, dozens of cops here have killed people. There have been few charges filed and no convictions until Oliver was sent to prison in 2018.
In the last decade, Fullinwider said, Dallas-area officials have started to take more responsibility, establishing an independent special unit under the district attorney’s office that investigates police shootings.
That’s a practice that should be adopted by all prosecutors, Fullinwider said. And really, he said, there must be more federal oversight.
“All in all, the national imperative should be to have federal prosecutors and investigators on every fatal police shooting,” he said.
Collette Flanagan, who founded Mothers Against Police Brutality, a Dallas-based group that has addressed police killings of unarmed Black men, believes local advocacy helped lead to change.
In March of 2013, a Dallas police officer fatally shot her unarmed son Clinton, 25. The officer shot Clinton seven times and hit him in the back. Law enforcement alleged that Clinton tried to choke the officer. No convictions followed.
“No one ever questioned police,” she said. “It was as if my son was solely to blame.”
Her group, which she formed after Clinton’s death, held vigils and met with members of the City Council. They started talking to anyone who would listen about her son’s death and Santos Rodriguez’s killing years earlier and how a police officer had not been convicted here in four decades.
The recent convictions are a sign of progress, Flanagan said, but she believes there is still a lot of work to do.
Local news coverage, Flanagan says, plays a key role in framing the public narrative after police killings.
“The attention is always on what the victim might have done wrong,” she said. “It’s never on police.”
Charmaine Edwards agrees.
When she reflects on her son’s death, she sometimes wonders why it was his case that resulted in a conviction.
The answer she’s settled on is a tendency by reporters to dig into the background of victims more deeply than those of officers. You might see a headline about a victim using drugs, she said, or having a police record.
“There is always this rush to justify why police kill Black men and children,” she said. “As if they deserve it. As if their life does not matter.”
It would have no doubt been that way in her son’s case, she said, except that there was nothing to shift the narrative. He was a high school student with a clean record. A football player. A boy who had simply gone to a party with his brothers and never came home.
“Prosecutors had to step forward,” Edwards said. “There had to be action.”
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