By Maggie Prosser and Krista M. Torralva
FORT WORTH — Atatiana Jefferson’s face is burned into Fort Worth police Officer Carol Darch’s memory.
Darch peered over the shoulder of fellow officer Aaron Dean after he fired a bullet into a window from the backyard of a Fort Worth home. Jefferson’s eyes were “as big as saucers” before the 28-year-old dropped to the floor, Darch told jurors Tuesday at Dean’s murder trial.
Prosecutors walked the Tarrant County jury through the moments before the gunfire on the second day of testimony. Jurors will decide whether Dean, 38, was justified as a Fort Worth cop to shoot Jefferson, who grabbed a gun after she heard a noise outside her mother’s home. The officers did not identify themselves as police officers before Dean fired, prosecutors said.
Dean did not say “gun” before shooting or tell Darch he saw a gun as they rushed inside the home, according to Darch’s testimony and his body-camera footage. Prosecutors argue Dean did not see Jefferson’s gun before deciding to shoot, while defense lawyers say he saw a green laser sight pointed toward him through the window.
James Smith, who lived across the street from the East Allen Avenue home, called a nonemergency police number before 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 12, 2019 to report the front and side doors were open and the lights were on. Smith said he was concerned because the family did not use the front door, which was ajar. He walked over to the home, did not see anyone inside, then called police, he said.
“I wasn’t really sure what was going on,” Smith said but, “it didn’t appear to be an emergency.”
A call taker coded Smith’s call as an “open structure” — a priority-two call that requires officers to treat it like a “silent alarm,” according to testimony.
Dean and Darch responded to Jefferson’s family home and noticed cabinets open and thought the home had been burglarized, Darch testified. She told jurors they did not announce their presence in case a burglar was still in the home, although she also said the two didn’t talk much and she followed Dean’s lead.
Darch testified she didn’t see damage on the home’s open doors that would be consistent with forced entry. The exterior doors were open because Jefferson’s nephew, Zion Carr, had burned hamburger patties earlier that evening and wanted to air out the home, according to his testimony on Monday.Related:Nephew, 11, testifies he thought he was dreaming when former FW officer shot, killed aunt
Darch admitted they didn’t follow proper procedure. Department policy requires officers to secure entrances and exits before inspecting the rest of the building. Darch and Dean also didn’t call the homeowner, which is required if there aren’t apparent signs of damage or forced entry.
Dean, who wrote on a notepad throughout the day, frowned when a Tarrant County prosecutor pressed Darch on their failures.
“There were violations of multiple general orders that this defendant was a part of and caused,” prosecutor Ashlea Deener said while questioning Darch.
The night Dean shot Jefferson, Smith waited on a nearby stoop after he called police. He testified he saw two silhouettes approach the home but did not immediately realize they were police officers. He said he didn’t see badges as the pair walked toward the backyard.
Dean’s body camera footage from that night shows him shine a light near cars parked outside the home, then toward a fence. He then opens the fence and focuses his light into the backyard. He turns toward a window, shouts, “Put your hands up, show me your hands” and fires into the home in seconds.
Cries, screams and moans can be heard from inside the home. In the Tarrant County courtroom, Jefferson’s siblings held hands during the body-camera footage. Her sister, Ashley Carr, put a tissue to her mouth.
Jurors did not appear to react to the body camera footage. A few feverishly took notes throughout testimony. Although some of the 12 jurors and two alternates are people of color, none are Black. Dean is white, and Jefferson was Black.
The officers ran inside and Darch saw 8-year-old Zion, who was up late playing video games. Darch testified she wrapped him in a blanket and took him outside. Dean swept his flashlight around the room, picked up Jefferson’s gun, then put a blanket over her gaping wound as other officers arrived.
“I heard the baby and that became my sole focus,” Darch testified. Zion faced away from Jefferson, who was on the floor under the window, the body camera footage showed.
Darch’s eyes welled with tears and her face flushed as she testified.
Zion told a child forensic interviewer hours after the shooting that his aunt heard a noise in the backyard. Jefferson grabbed the gun from her purse and pointed it at the window, he said in a narrow room sitting just feet from the interviewer. At times in the video, he reached for tissues and wiped his face.
Zion said in the interview, recorded about 4:45 a.m. the morning of the shooting, that he didn’t hear anything in the backyard but said he saw a “gun out the window, and I thought I saw a badge,” and a flashlight. He said someone yelled, “Put your hands up!”
In the courtroom Tuesday, Amber Carr, Zion’s mother, dabbed her face with a tissue as Zion, now 11, was heard telling the interviewer he was worried about where he’d live after the shooting. Zion lived with Jefferson and his grandmother, Yolanda Carr, who was in the hospital at the time of the shooting. Yolanda Carr died within three months of Jefferson’s killing. Amber Carr was also in poor health at the time.
On the witness stand Monday, Zion testified Jefferson held the gun at her hip and did not raise it. He also said he didn’t see anything outside. Defense lawyers implied to the judge after jurors were dismissed Monday that they believed Zion was coached to testify differently from what he said immediately after Dean shot Jefferson.
Dean’s lawyers called the shooting a “tragic accident” and said he “acted accordingly” after perceiving a threat. They argued it was reasonable for the officers to assume the home had been burglarized.
“No one wants to be involved in a shooting,” Darch said. She was not wearing a body camera the morning of the shooting. Darch said after the killing she suffered two strokes that impaired her memory and briefly left Fort Worth police.
Darch said police officers are “trained to stop the threat” using various use-of-force techniques, from physicality, to less-lethal weapons, like Tasers and pepper spray, to deadly force.
“Deadly force is always met with deadly force,” she said while being questioned by the defense.
Darch said the neighborhood in southeast Fort Worth was a target for property and drug-related crimes. Under defense questioning, Smith, who has lived on East Allen Avenue for decades, told jurors his block is relatively safe. Dean’s lawyers said Smith previously told the media he wouldn’t get closer to the home because he didn’t have a weapon.
Dean’s lawyers asked the judge last week to stop Smith from holding up a large, “We want justice!” sign outside the courthouse, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. Smith testified that he relives the shooting daily and feels somewhat responsible for Jefferson’s killing.
“It was devastating,” Smith said of her death.
Dean was arrested on a murder charge 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 rights to defend herself.
Dean faces up to life in prison if convicted of murder. Before his arrest, no Tarrant County officer had ever faced a murder charge, the district attorney’s office said at the time.
A gag order prohibits Dean, his defense lawyers, Jefferson’s family and prosecutors from speaking before the end of the trial. Dean’s lead defense attorney, Jim Lane, died on the eve of jury selection.
Testimony is expected to continue Wednesday. The trial is expected to last more than a week.