Former Prosecutor and highly experienced Dallas, Texas criminal defense lawyer John Helms shares unique insight into one of the country’s most high-profile cases involving the shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager by a police officer. He explains his belief that the guilty verdict and sentence in State of Texas v. Roy Oliver were just, even though both have been highly controversial.
BACKGROUND ABOUT STATE OF TEXAS v. ROY OLIVER
Last week, a Dallas County jury found former Balch Springs Police Officer Roy Oliver guilty of murder in the shooting death of a fifteen-year-old African-American young man named Jordan Edwards. The jury sentenced Oliver to fifteen years in prison. The guilty verdict was justifiably heralded in the national media as historic.
Nevertheless, some questioned whether Mr. Oliver should really have been convicted of murder, as opposed to a lesser offense, such as negligent homicide. Still, others felt that he should have been found not guilty at all.
The jury’s sentence of fifteen years in prison has been even more controversial. Many have reacted angrily to the idea that the life of an innocent fifteen-year-old is worth only a fifteen-year sentence, especially when Mr. Oliver will be eligible for parole after serving only half of it.
Aside from the lawyers and investigators, the judge, and the jury in the case, I have perhaps a unique degree of insight into the evidence and the trial. I have been both a civil and criminal trial lawyer from Dallas County, in state and federal courts, as both a criminal prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer, for many years. Because of my relationships with members of the prosecution team, I have followed the case closely from the beginning, and they have shared their thoughts and insights with me about the evidence and the challenges they faced. I was able to watch much of the trial either live or on a live stream.
I was also called as an expert witness by the State at a pretrial hearing on the issue of whether Mr. Oliver could receive a fair trial in Dallas County. Mr. Oliver’s defense team had asked the court to move the trial to another county because, they claimed, the pretrial publicity in Dallas County prevented Mr. Oliver from getting a fair trial. I testified that I was completely confident that a fair and impartial jury could be selected in Dallas County, despite the pretrial publicity. Judge Brandon Birmingham agreed and denied the motion to change venue.
The vast majority of the criticism I have heard about the result has come from people who, though probably well-meaning, do not, in my judgment, have a thorough understanding of the facts and evidence or, in many cases, even the criminal justice system. Because social media gives a platform to broadcast opinions to anyone with a smartphone or a computer, misinformation and uninformed opinions have been widely circulated and have caused a lot of confusion. I hope to clear up some of that misinformation and confusion and to provide a more balanced and reasoned assessment of the verdicts.
On April 29, 2017, Jordan Edwards, his brother, and friends went to a party in Balch Springs, Texas. Balch Springs is a suburb of Dallas. Jordan was a fifteen-year-old African-American young man who went to Mesquite High School. From all accounts, he was polite, friendly, and an excellent student who had never been in any trouble of any kind.
The party was at a house in the middle of a block in a residential area. At the end of the block, across the street, was a nursing home. There was no meaningful adult supervision at the party, but there were also no reported incidents of underage drinking or drug use. There were a lot of kids, though. The vast majority were African-American.
As often happens, there were probably more kids who showed up than the organizers planned. As also often happens, when there is a large party with high-school kids, there was noise, and there were kids in and around the front yard and in the street. Predictably, a neighbor called the police because of the noise and a belief that there was underage drinking.
Balch Springs Police Officer Roy Oliver and his partner, Tyler Gross, received a disturbing-the-peace call and went to break up the party. According to Mr. Oliver’s testimony, they had recently heard from officers of the neighboring Mesquite Police Department about street gang activity and a house party that had turned violent in the general area.
Oliver and Gross arrived and went into the house. Their body cameras showed that the kids they encountered were polite and friendly. There were no signs of alcohol or drugs—just dancing and kids hanging out. Both officers told the kids in a polite way that they needed to go home, and even joked with them.
The mere presence of the police, however, caused some of the kids at the party to take off running or to leave quickly. Kids started filling the street as they left.
While the officers were inside the house, several loud gunshots were heard from somewhere down the block toward the nursing home. The sound of gunfire resulted in chaos. The officers immediately left the house to investigate the gunshots.
It turned out, although no one knew it at the time, that the gunshots came from a pistol fired into the air in the nursing home parking lot by a member of a local street gang called the Banks Brothers. The shooter had apparently heard that a rival street gang, called the Drillas, was nearby, and the shots were meant as a warning to them. It also turned out, although again, no one knew it at the time, that the shooter had not been at the party—at least not inside the house.
Officer Gross ran up the left side of the street in the direction of the shots with his gun drawn. Officer Oliver went to his squad car, grabbed a rifle, and ran up the right side of the street with the rifle on his shoulder and in a ready position.
As of the time the two officers got to the end of the block, all of the expert witnesses at trial, on both sides, agreed that Officer Oliver had acted appropriately and according to recommended police procedure. Some people have questioned whether Officer Oliver should have gotten his rifle and gone running up the street with it shouldered. The experts concluded, though, that this was not only appropriate, but recommended. The rifle was appropriate, they agreed, because the officers were encountering an active shooter situation, and it is necessary, if possible, for the police to try to have more firepower than the shooter. Running up the street as he did was also appropriate, they agreed, because it was dark, and the officers did not know exactly where the shots were fired or who fired them. They had to be ready to encounter someone shooting either at them or at bystanders.
From the police body cameras, we know what happened next. A car on the other side of the cross street, closest to Officer Gross, near the nursing home parking lot, initially backed up, then went forward. It was very briefly headed in the direction of Officer Gross, but it turned, went into the right lane of the street perpendicular to the block of the house party, and started to head down the street. The car was not moving fast. If anything, it was moving at a normal rate of speed.
Officer Gross yelled at the car to stop, but it did not. As the car passed Officer Gross, he tapped on the rear passenger window with his revolver to try to get the driver’s attention. Officer Gross did not mean to do this, but it shattered the window, making a breaking glass sound. Less than a second after the glass break, Officer Oliver fired five shots from his rifle into the passenger side of the car. At the time of the first shot, the car was moving parallel to him, and the front of the car had already passed him.
Jordan Edwards was in the front passenger seat. His brother and two other boys were in the car. One of the shots hit Jordan in the back of the head and killed him. The other shots hit the car, but none of them hit any of the other boys. None of the boys were armed.
Just after firing the shots, Officer Oliver exclaimed to his partner, Officer Gross, that he thought the car was going to hit Officer Gross.
Officer Gross testified at trial that he did not feel that he was in any danger. The ballistics and video evidence also showed that, at the time Officer Oliver started firing, the car had already passed Officer Gross and was in the process of passing Officer Oliver so that he was not in any significant danger from the car.
The police procedure expert for the State testified that Officer Oliver violated police procedure by using deadly force without proper regard for the safety of innocent third-parties. He also testified that shooting into the passenger side of the car would have been highly unlikely to have stopped the car, either mechanically, or by disabling the driver. He agreed, though, that Oliver had acted properly up until he fired the shots.
The police procedure expert for Mr. Oliver testified that it was reasonable to believe that Oliver was trying to protect Officer Gross. He said that, at the time Oliver’s brain would have made the decision to fire, the car would have been headed in the general direction of Officer Gross, but by the time he pulled the trigger, the car had passed Officer Gross The defense also suggested that the shots could have been a reaction to the sudden glass break, but the State’s expert said that the glass break happened too quickly before the first shot to have affected the decision to shoot.
Both sides agreed that Oliver’s intention was to shoot the driver. Both sides agreed that Oliver had no idea who the people in the car were.
In a criminal trial, the judge gives the jury instructions on the law that they must follow in reaching their verdict. The judge reads the instructions to the jury before the lawyers make their closing arguments, and the jury is given a written set of the instructions to take with them when they deliberate. Juries usually pay very close attention to the instructions and work hard to follow them. In this case, the law contained in the judge’s instructions appears to have been critical to the jury’s decision.
Roy Oliver was charged with murder for killing Jordan Edwards. The murder statute in Texas includes different types of conduct that can be murder. Most people think murder means “premeditated killing”—when someone plans in advance to kill someone. Texas law, however, includes the following within the definition of murder:
[A person commits murder if he] intends to cause serious bodily injury and commits an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual.
Texas Penal Code, section 19.02(b)(2).
What Roy Oliver did fits this definition. He intended to cause serious bodily injury to the driver of the car. He committed an act clearly dangerous to human life by firing shots into the passenger side of the car. He caused the death of Jordan Edwards.
Texas law, however, includes the defense of “justification,” which includes defending a third party, such as Officer Gross. A person is not guilty of murder, even if he does what fits the above definition of murder, if his actions were legally justified. When a defendant asserts the defense of justification, the State has the burden of proving that the defendant was not justified, and it must prove this beyond a reasonable doubt.
Under Texas law, a defendant is justified, based on protecting a third person, if the defendant “reasonably believed” that his actions were necessary to protect the third person. This means that a person can be justified in killing someone, based on a reasonable belief that the action was necessary, even if it turns out that the action was not, in fact, necessary to protect the third person.
In this case, Oliver would have been justified in acting as he did, if he reasonably believed his action was necessary to protect Officer Gross, even if it turned out that his action was not really necessary. Therefore, even though Officer Gross testified that he never felt he was in danger, and even though the car had already passed Gross when Oliver shot, if Oliver reasonably believed that what he did was necessary to protect Gross, he would be not guilty of murder. And the State had to prove that Oliver did not have such a reasonable belief beyond a reasonable doubt.
The State could have done this in either of two ways; (1) by proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Oliver did not believe his actions were necessary to protect Gross; or (2) by proving that, even if he believed, correctly or not, that his actions were necessary to protect Gross, his belief that his actions were necessary was unreasonable, beyond a reasonable doubt.
Proving either of these two scenarios beyond a reasonable doubt was a huge challenge for the State. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” means more than just that a juror thinks something is probable, or even highly probable. It means, for example, that even if a juror thinks that Oliver unreasonably believed his actions were necessary to protect Gross, that belief must be so strong that the juror does not even have a doubt about it, based on reason. And to convict Oliver of murder, all twelve jurors had to agree on this.
Criminal convictions of police officers who shoot someone while on duty are rare, and for good reason. It may sound like a cliché to people who blog or write on social media, but this is the absolute truth: Police officers have to risk their lives by putting themselves in dangerous situations in which they have to make snap decisions that can have horrible consequences for them, their police partners, or others. Police shootings almost always involve extremely high-risk and dangerous situations in which the officer does not have the luxury of making a calm and thoughtful decision. When a police officer willingly encounters a danger to his or her own life in order to protect the public safety, the law and the public understandably want to give them the benefit of the doubt, even if there are tragic consequences.
This case involved one of those situations. It was night, there were people milling around a house and the street, and suddenly, there were multiple gunshots from somewhere up the street. The police officers did not know who fired the shots or why. They did not know if there were one or more shooters. They did not know if there was a shootout between gangs. They did not know if anyone had been hurt or killed. Yet, they hurried up the street to try to find and encounter the shooter and to protect the public.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Officer Gross and Officer Oliver exhibited extreme bravery by hurrying to encounter an active shooter situation. For all they knew, there could have been someone just waiting to pick them off or an armed shooter trying to escape from a murder. When the car in which Jordan Edwards was riding began to leave, Oliver and Gross did not know if those in the car were all armed and were the ones who had fired the shots. And we know that everything happened in mere seconds.
These are some of the difficulties the prosecutors had to overcome in order to get a murder conviction.
One crucial difference between this case and most high-profile cases about shootings by police officers, though, is that the victim here was an innocent bystander. Jordan Edwards was a passenger in the car. Even if the driver had been trying to hit Gross, which he had not, Jordan Edwards was not driving the car.
Texas law recognizes this important distinction. Under section 9.05 of the Texas Penal Code, a defendant like Roy Oliver is not entitled to the defense of justification if he acted recklessly and an innocent third party was injured or killed. This means that, if the jury believed that Oliver acted recklessly, beyond a reasonable doubt, his actions could not be justified, because he killed an innocent third party—Jordan Edwards.
Texas law has a specific definition of “reckless.” The judge’s instructions defined it for the jury. Essentially, a person acts recklessly if the person does something, knowing that his actions have a high risk of causing something bad to happen, and the person does it anyway, although the person does not want the bad thing to happen. In other words, the person does something without regard for the potential consequences. It is worse than simply not being careful enough.
The bottom line is this: Based on these facts, and because he killed an innocent third party, the jury could have found Roy Oliver guilty of murder if they were convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he acted recklessly. But whether or not he was reckless had to be based on how Roy Oliver perceived the situation at the time—not based on how others might perceive the situation in hindsight.
THE GUILTY VERDICT
The jury found Roy Oliver guilty of murder. We do not know exactly what they said and thought during their deliberations, but we do know that they were focused on the instruction that the defense of justification was not available if Oliver acted recklessly and killed an innocent third party. We know that because the last note they sent to the judge focused on this instruction.
I believe that the verdict was just. Shooting into the passenger side of a car, knowing nothing about the occupants, having no basis to believe they were armed, and killing the innocent passenger strikes me as clearly reckless. As the State pointed out repeatedly, Oliver fired five shots. It was extremely fortunate that one or more of the other three young men in the car was not also killed.
This is not to say, as some have claimed after the fact, that this was an easy case for the prosecutors. It was not at all. They worked tirelessly for more than a year on this case, and their presentation to the jury was virtually flawless. The guilty verdict in this case made national news precisely because such verdicts are rare and extremely difficult to achieve. Lead prosecutor Mike Snipes, a former Dallas County criminal district judge, in particular deserves immense credit for this historic verdict. He put his heart and soul into this case, and it showed.
Under Texas law, a defendant can choose whether to have the judge or the jury decide the defendant’s sentence. In high-profile cases like this one, when I am representing a defendant, I generally prefer to have the jury decide punishment. State judges in Texas are elected, and regardless of how much I respect a judge (and I respect the judge in the Oliver case a lot), I worry that a judge will be concerned about a public outcry for what is perceived as a lenient sentence and that this could affect the judge’s reelection chances. In this case, the Oliver defense team chose to have the jury decide his punishment.
In Texas, murder is a first-degree felony, and the punishment is five to ninety-nine years or life in prison. The jury was therefore instructed that this was the range of punishment they should consider. The jury must also agree unanimously on the punishment the defendant will receive.
The prosecution asked the jury to give Oliver either a life sentence or a sentence of sixty years. Their reasoning was that, if the jury did not believe life in prison was appropriate, they should start with 100 years, subtract twenty years for Oliver’s creditable military service, and subtract twenty years for his service as a police officer, making sixty years.
The defense emphasized Oliver’s service to his country and the public. He had served honorably in the military, and he had chosen to be a police officer to protect the public after he left the military. They also emphasized that he had not intended to kill an innocent person, but he had done so in the moment and while facing a highly dangerous situation in which he and his partner were both risking their own lives.
I believe this latter argument was the most persuasive. Everyone agreed that Oliver had acted properly, and indeed heroically, up until he fired the shots. He was in a high-risk, potentially explosive situation, and what he did had horrible consequences, but I do not believe he intended to kill an innocent person.
Before the punishment verdict, I told one of the prosecutors that my guess was a sentence of between fifteen and twenty years. I based that on many years of experience with juries and how they make decisions.
I know that every person on the prosecution team wanted a longer sentence. They did everything they could to try to persuade the jury to give one. I do not believe they failed. They did an amazing job throughout the whole trial. They were incredibly prepared. They did everything they should and could have done. They should all be incredibly proud of what they accomplished.
In the end, I believe the sentence was just. It could have been higher. I would not have been happy with less.
Roy Oliver was convicted of murder. He will serve at least seven and a half years in prison—probably more. He will never be a police officer again. He will never even be able to possess a gun legally again. A powerful message has been sent to police departments around the country that I am sure will affect individual officers and be a force for change in the way policing is done. Police departments will study this case for years to come, and they will train officers on why they can never allow themselves to do what Roy Oliver did.
Many people have, understandably, questioned how the life of an innocent fifteen-year-old boy, who was unquestionably a good kid and full of promise, can be “worth” only fifteen years. The answer is hard for many people to understand, but the jury was not asked, and did not decide, what Jordan Edwards’ life is worth. They were asked what punishment Roy Oliver deserved based on his actions—not what Jordan Edwards’ life is worth.
An example may help to illustrate this. Suppose Jordan Edwards was killed while walking across the street by a driver who was speeding and did not see him. Now, suppose he was killed by a member of the Ku Klux Klan who decided to hunt him down and kill him because of his race. In both situations, Jordan Edwards has lost his life—the same life.
Everyone should be able to understand, though, that the driver who accidentally killed him because he was not being careful should receive a lesser punishment than the Ku Klux Klan member who hunted him down and assassinated him because of his race. The victim is the same, and the value of the victim’s life is the same, but the punishment depends on the actions and intentions of the person who killed him. That is what the jury had to consider and decide.
What happened to Jordan Edwards was an unspeakable tragedy. His family and friends are, of course, utterly devastated. It will take them many years to recover, if they ever can. I am more than mindful of this.
On the other hand, no sentence, no matter how long, can bring Jordan Edwards back. A fifty or a ninety-nine-year sentence will not bring him back. The criminal justice system cannot do that. It is not designed to do that.
I am sure that many people will disagree with the views I have expressed—some perhaps angrily. I do not wish that, but I expect it. I will have achieved my purpose in writing this, however, if I have somehow helped some people to have a better understanding of this case and the result.
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Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyer John Helms