By Krista M. Torralva, Maggie Prosser and Kelli Smith
FORT WORTH — Zion Carr thought he was dreaming when his aunt fell to the floor.
Atatiana Jefferson, 28, had heard a noise outside their southeast Fort Worth home and grabbed her gun from her purse, the now-11-year-old told jurors Monday on the first day of testimony at the murder trial of the former Fort Worth officer who killed her. Jefferson kept the weapon close to her side and approached the back window of her bedroom, Zion said.
She then fell to the floor, and Zion, who was 8 at the time, said two police officers rushed into the home. One was Aaron Dean, who had just shot Jefferson through the window. He and his partner were responding to a call from a concerned neighbor about an open door at the home.
“I wasn’t upset, I was confused,” Zion recalled feeling early the morning of Oct. 12, 2019, “because I didn’t know if … it was a dream and I wasn’t waking up still.”
Dean, 38, faces up to life in prison if convicted of murderfor shooting and killing Jefferson in her mother’s home. Tarrant County prosecutors told jurors in opening statements Dean committed murder, while defense attorneys say he acted appropriately with the limited information he had.
Fort Worth police have said Dean failed to identify himself as an officer when he arrived at the house in the predominantly Black neighborhood. Dean is white, and Jefferson was Black.
The case centers on whether Dean was justified in shooting Jefferson. Although people of color are on the jury, none of the jurors are Black.
Jefferson was at her ailing mother’s home in the 1200 block of East Allen Avenue. She and Zion were up late playing video games, when a neighbor noticed the front door of the house was open and the lights were on about 2:30 a.m. Zion told jurors he’d burned hamburger patties and they’d opened the doors to fan out the billowing smoke.
Jurors smiled and laughed as the young boy described charred patties and aspirations of becoming a basketball player. Even Dean grinned.
Zion appeared upbeat before his testimony. Before the courtroom opened, he and his mother, Amber Carr, and her siblings Adarius and Ashley Carr, waited behind a clear wall as spectators lined up in the hallway. Friends and relatives waved to Zion, who beamed back and made a peace sign of his hand.
Zion entered the packed courtroom and buttoned his dark blue suit coat before walking past aisles of jurors and others to take his place on the witness stand. State District Judge George Gallagher greeted Zion, and the child offered his hand to shake. The judge chuckled, said “OK” and shook Zion’s hand.
But Zion grew despondent and frustrated during his hour and a half of testimony. He struggled to answer defense lawyer Bob Gill’s questions. Gill asked Zion if he’d watched Dean’s body camera video. Zion asked if he was required to answer.
“I don’t like talking about what happened,” Zion said.
Dean, seated at his lawyers’ table a few feet away, nodded. He took a tissue from his pocket and wiped his nose and eyes.
Footage from Dean’s body camera shows him walk to the back of the house, then turn toward a window. He yelled at Jefferson and shot her through the window in seconds. Zion told jurors he didn’t remember seeing or hearing police officers outside, but lawyers said that differed from what he told a forensic interviewer the morning of the shooting.
“The last words that Atatiana Jefferson heard before she died were, ‘Put your hands up, show me your hands’ then boom,” prosecutor Ashlea Deener said, clapping her hands to mimic the sound of a gunshot.
Prosecutors argued in opening statements that Dean did not see the gun in Jefferson’s hand and had no reason to use lethal force. Once inside, Dean did not immediately tend to Jefferson’s wound, Deener said. He first used his flashlight to scan the room and noted the gun on the floor, she said. Dean only pressed a blanket to Jefferson’s chest after more officers arrived, Deener said.
“This is not a justification, this is not a self-defense case — this is murder,” Deener said. “Your home is supposed to be the one place on earth that you get to go to be safe, to seek shelter, to seek refuge. But for Atatiana Jefferson, her home was not her refuge, it was not her sanctuary or her safe place — it was her demise.”
“And she left in a body bag because of what he did.”
Dean was arrested on a murder warrant two days after the shooting. Then-interim Fort Worth police Chief Ed Kraus said Dean resigned before the chief was able to fire him. Former Mayor Betsy Price and Kraus have said Jefferson was within her right to defend herself.
Miles Brissette, one of Dean’s defense attorneys, said jurors need to consider what Dean knew at the time of the shooting — not what was learned afterward. The nonemergency call was coded as an open structure, and Fort Worth police general orders state officers should treat those calls as a “silent alarm,” which means they need to inspect the building for forced entry and not reveal their position, Brissette said.
As Dean and his partner officer peered inside the house, officers saw a kitchen that appeared “to be ransacked” and believed it was a burglary in progress, Brissette said. Cabinets in the kitchen looked open and things were scattered on the floor. Outside, there was a mower and a bicycle on the ground, Brissette said, adding it’s “a rough neighborhood” and “things that are left outside at night tend to disappear.”
As Dean went around the back of the house, he saw a silhouette through the window with a gun, along with a green laser aimed at him — which he perceived to be a threat, Brissette said.
Dean believed he and the other officer were at risk, his attorney said. Dean took a half-step back, yelled out his commands as trained and fired one shot, Brissette said. Although Jefferson was undoubtedly “a great person,” Brissette said, jurors need to focus on what officers knew as they answered the call.
“This case is about fact and not emotion,” Brissette said. “That officer considered that to be deadly force against him and acted accordingly.”
Throughout opening statements and Zion’s testimony, his mother, Amber Carr, who uses a wheelchair, reached for tissues from a supporter in the seat behind her, removed her glasses and wiped tears.
During a break, Zion stepped down from the witness stand and went to his family in the courtroom gallery. He was escorted out of the courtroom, and as he walked out, his face crinkled. In the hallway, he could be heard crying and coughing. He clung to the waist of his uncle.
Outside the presence of the jury, prosecutor Dale Smith said Monday was the first time Zion said Jefferson kept the gun at her hip. Zion, who was interviewed the same day of the shooting, previously said Jefferson held the gun up, according to Smith.
Under defense questioning, Zion stood up and demonstrated how his aunt held the gun when she was shot. He bent his right arm and curled his fingers as if he was holding the grip of a gun, with his hand angled down and held against his hip.
He also testified that he was looking at his Nintendo Switch when his aunt began to investigate the noise outside. Jefferson said the noise might’ve been a raccoon, Zion said.
“I thought it might’ve been a raccoon too,” he said, adding that he hasn’t shared that detail before.
Zion flung his hands out, palms up, and fidgeted in his chair as Gill pressed him. He took deep breaths and his eyes darted.
Gallagher asked a woman to leave the courtroom for gesturing to Zion as he testified. That woman told relatives on her way out that she was trying to tell Zion to breathe because he was frustrated. Another person was reprimanded for reportedly recording the trial on a phone. The judge has said no electronics, except designated live-streams, are allowed in court.
During Zion’s testimony, a juror reached for a tissue from a nearby box and wiped his palms. He nodded when Smith told Zion he was brave.
After Zion and the jury were dismissed, defense lawyers implied to the judge they believed Zion was coached to give an account different from his forensic interview taken after the shooting.
Lee Merritt, a lawyer representing Jefferson’s family in a civil lawsuit, watched a video feed of the trial in another room of the courthouse. The judge admonished Merritt and instructed him to stop watching the trial because he may be called to testify.
A gag order prohibits Dean, his defense lawyers, Jefferson’s family and prosecutors from speaking ahead of the end of the trial. Dean’s lead defense attorney, Jim Lane, died on the eve of jury selection.
The judge denied the defense’s motion Mondayto move the trial out of Tarrant County. Dean’s lawyers have previously tried to get a change of venue, which delayed the trial.
Court adjourned early Monday so people could attend Lane’s funeral service. Testimony is set to continue Tuesday.