By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – A Texas jury on Tuesday found a white former policeman guilty of murder for fatally shooting a black teenager in a car moving away from him in a 2017 case in a Dallas suburb that fueled a national debate over possible racial bias in U.S. policing.
The police officer, Roy Oliver, 38, was fired by the Balch Springs Police Department for violating department policy a few days after he fatally shot Jordan Edwards, 15, a standout high school student and athlete. Edwards was shot in the head.
The conviction was a rare instance in which an officer was found guilty of murdering an unarmed person.
The sentencing phase of the trial started shortly after the verdict came out and the same jury that convicted Oliver will decide on his punishment. He faces up to life in prison.
Oliver, along with another officer, had responded to reports of underage drinking at a house party in the predominantly black and Hispanic city of Balch Springs, about 15 miles (25 km) southeast of Dallas. Oliver fired his rifle five times at a car with several other teens inside, prosecutors said.
The jurors deliberated for about 12 hours over two days before reaching its verdict, following a trial that started in mid-August.
First Assistant District Attorney Michael Snipes said Oliver was a trigger-happy policeman who sent the teenager to an early grave.
“This guy is an angry, out-of-control, walking bomb,” Snipes said in closing arguments.
After the verdict came out, Odell Edwards, the father of the victim, told media: “It’s been a long time. It’s been a hard year. I’m just really happy.”
The arrest warrant for Oliver said he and the other officer tried to stop a car at an intersection near the party. The other officer broke a passenger window with the butt of his gun.
Police body camera images showed to jurors indicated that the car was pointed away from the officers and was moving away from Oliver when he fired at it.
Oliver’s defense attorney, Jim Lane, said the vehicle was a threat to Oliver’s partner that night and he reacted to save his partner by firing into the car.
“Roy Oliver reasonably made the decision that he had to make,” Lane said in closing arguments.
Two of Edwards’ brothers were in the car with him and watched him die, a family lawyer said.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Leslie Adler and Sandra Maler)