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Joy at Conviction Turns to Ire at 15-Year Sentence for Police Killing of Boy

Fifteen is a significant number for Jordan Edwards’ family. It’s how many years he lived before a police officer opened fire with a high-powered rifle as Jordan and four other teenagers drove away from a house party in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs in April 2017.

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Adeel Hassan
, New York Times

Fifteen is a significant number for Jordan Edwards’ family. It’s how many years he lived before a police officer opened fire with a high-powered rifle as Jordan and four other teenagers drove away from a house party in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs in April 2017.

Jordan, a high school freshman, was sitting in the front passenger seat when a bullet struck his head and killed him.

This week, the number gained a new meaning when the officer convicted in Jordan’s murder, Roy D. Oliver II, received a 15-year prison term. The prosecution was seeking at least 60 years.

“That was my exact thought: They gave a year for his age,” Jordan’s stepmother, Charmaine Edwards, said outside a Dallas County courtroom after the sentence was handed down Wednesday. “He can actually see life again after 15 years, and that’s not enough because Jordan can’t see life again.”

The disappointment came just one day after the family felt some consolation in securing a rare conviction in a case where a white officer killed a black person.

“I would have been fine if he had got 30 years, or 25 years,” Edwards said in a phone interview Thursday. “Anything over 15, I would have been satisfied. I just feel like 15 years is not nearly enough for the loss of a life, especially when you have people who commit smaller crimes and they get more years than that.”

In Texas, the vast majority of murder sentences are for more than 20 years, though Oliver’s lawyer, Bob Gill, said after the sentencing that longer prison terms are usually for “people who act out of malice or hatred.”

Standard police practices allow officers to use their discretion to shoot in situations when they believe they are in danger and jurors are inclined to believe police testimony, experts say. Police officers in Texas’ largest cities fatally shot 247 people between 2010-15, according to The Texas Tribune, and rarely faced charges. Until this week, it had been 45 years since a police officer in Dallas County had been convicted of murder. The previous officer received five years and served half his sentence.

Edwards also acknowledged that before the start of the murder trial she was pessimistic about the prosecution’s chances, after watching police shooting cases like those involving Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, Clinton Allen, Alton Sterling, Terence Crutcher and others.

“If I have to be honest, I wasn’t looking for a conviction because quite naturally you’ve seen across the nation where this has happened so many times and no one is held accountable,” she said. “So I figured that it would be another one of these occasions where a police officer is not held accountable for his actions.”

Edwards, 35, said she thought of the many other families of police shooting victims.

“I’m them,” she said. “I was in their shoes just two weeks ago, sitting here wondering: Was I going to get a conviction?”

“So, of course, I totally feel the way they feel,” she added. “The only difference is that I see results from his death. My heart is with them because I know it still hurts and I know it hurts as a mother for them: To see a conviction for another black life lost and their child still didn’t get justice.”

One exception is Judy Scott, the mother of Walter Scott, an unarmed black motorist who was killed in North Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 after a traffic stop. That case ended in a mistrial, but the officer, Michael T. Slager, pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Next week in Chicago, Officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in October 2014, is scheduled to go on trial. He is the first Chicago police officer in decades charged with murder for a fatal on-duty shooting.

In this week’s case in Dallas, 12 jurors, two of whom were black women, decided unanimously to convict. The county is about one-quarter black.

“One of the most powerful things about this verdict, beyond the fact that it is a verdict, is that it came with only two black women on that jury,” an Edwards family lawyer, Jasmine Crockett, said.

On the night of April 29, 2017, Oliver and his partner had been dispatched to a house in response to a complaint of underage drinking. Body camera footage showed Oliver firing his rifle into a car that was traveling away from him and his partner, Officer Tyler Gross. The car was carrying Jordan, his two brothers and two other teenagers.

Last week, Oliver testified that he had decided to fire at the car when he saw it moving toward Gross, endangering him. But Gross told the court that he had not feared for his life. His testimony and the body camera footage played critical roles in the rare trial outcome, observers say.

“The video helps to get us to first base, but I don’t know if that’s what got us the home run though,” Crockett said. “Time and time again, we’ll all look at the same video. And one side is saying, ‘This is what I see,’ and another side is saying, ‘That’s what I see.'”

Oliver’s lawyers have already begun the process of appealing, and the Edwards family is proceeding with a civil suit against Oliver and the city of Balch Springs.

“We are pleased that we got a verdict although we wanted a greater punishment,” said Daryl K. Washington, another lawyer for the Edwards family. “The jury sent a message to Dallas, to the State of Texas and the rest of this country that police brutality will not be accepted.”

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