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Judges: Former Balch Springs police Officer Roy Oliver can be sued for death of Jordan Edwards

A federal appeals court in New Orleans decided the controversial qualified-immunity doctrine should not apply to the ex-cop.

By Krista M. Torralva and Jamie Landers

Roy Oliver
Roy Oliver reacted after receiving a sentence of 15 years in prison for the murder of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards. / Photo Credit: Rose Baca / Staff Photographer

Former Balch Springs police Officer Roy Oliver, who was convicted of fatally shooting an unarmed 15-year-old Black boy in 2017, can be sued by the victim’s family, a panel of federal appellate judges decided Tuesday.

Oliver argued in court filings that he shouldn’t be sued because he was entitled to qualified immunity, which protects government employees from litigation for doing their jobs, when he shot into a car of teens and killed Jordan Edwards.

Judges Carolyn Dineen King and James E. Graves Jr. of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Their 17-page opinion published Tuesday focused on technical aspects of law.

The third judge on the panel, James C. Ho, dissented.

Edwards’ family sued Oliver and the city of Balch Springs in 2017, and a federal district court judge dropped the city from the lawsuit in February.

The family was relieved with the judges’ decision, said attorney Daryl Washington, who represents them along with Jasmine Crockett and Thad Spalding.

“We’ve seen these kinds of cases go in the total opposite direction even when there was clear-cut evidence, so the family was excited to get this news,” Washington said.

Qualified immunity has long been scrutinized by lawyers and has become widely controversial since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2020 declined to hear cases re-examining the doctrine.

Jordan Edwards
Jordan Edwards / Photo Credit: Dallas County / Staff Photographer

Two previous judges had already found Oliver did not meet the merits of qualified immunity, saying “a reasonable jury could conclude the car full of teenagers presented no immediate threat to the officers’ safety, making Oliver’s use of deadly force unreasonable.”

Oliver, who declined an interview request from The Dallas Morning News this week, appealed their decisions to the circuit court in New Orleans.

The issue of qualified immunity is decided apart from the criminal-justice system, and a person convicted of a crime could still be shielded from civil liability, which Ho pointed out. He referenced another case with similar facts in which the appeals court ruled last year that qualified immunity should apply.

That kind of head-scratcher is just one reason the doctrine is controversial, said David Coale, a Dallas attorney who blogs about the Texas Supreme Court and federal courts.

“A jury concluded that he intentionally, without justification took the life of another person … and there is a serious debate in the federal courts about whether or not a convicted murderer can receive qualified immunity for his actions,” Coale said of Oliver. “That seems jarring. And it seems to illustrate why people have the criticisms that they do about qualified immunity.”

What happened in April 2017

On April 29, 2017, Oliver and a second officer, Tyler Gross, responded to a call about a noisy house party about 11:30 p.m. in the 12300 block of Baron Drive.

While the officers were in the home, they heard gunfire outside. Oliver, a six-year veteran of the force, grabbed his rifle from his patrol car parked out front as Edwards, his brothers and two friends got in another car to leave.

As Edwards’ brother, Vidal Allen, backed out onto Shepherd Lane, Gross ordered him to stop. Oliver, who testified he thought the car would hit Gross, ran toward the vehicle, shooting five times.

The second bullet went through the passenger window and into the back of Edwards’ head, killing him instantly. Only nine seconds elapsed between when Oliver started running with his rifle and the moment he pulled the trigger.

There were no weapons, drugs or alcohol found in the car, or in the house the party was held in.

The police department fired Oliver three days after the shooting. He was found guilty of murder in August 2018 and sentenced to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. He was acquitted of two counts of aggravated assault for shooting into the car.

He is eligible for parole in 2026.

Conviction upheld

In August 2020, a Texas appeals court upheld Oliver’s sentence after his lawyers argued there were more than a dozen separate issues with his trial — including that no reasonable juror could’ve rejected his defense that he was acting to protect his partner and that the court allowed evidence it should not have.

The appeals court disagreed. However, a judge dismissed four aggravated-assault charges “without prejudice,” meaning they can be refiled. Two of the dismissed charges stemmed from an accusation that Oliver brandished his gun at two women, who later testified at Oliver’s murder trial, following a car crash two weeks before Edwards was killed.

The other two dismissed charges involve the two other boys who were in the car with Edwards.

CORRECTION, 9:50 p.m. April 19, 2022: An earlier version of this story referred to Lee Merritt as an attorney for Jordan Edwards’ family. He no longer represents the family.

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