FORT WORTH — Former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean told a Tarrant County jury Monday at his murder trial he saw a gun before he fired into a window and killed Atatiana Jefferson.
Dean, 38, who resigned before he could be fired, admitted on the witness stand he and a fellow officer did not follow proper procedures when they responded to a call about open doors at Jefferson’s mother’s home about 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 12, 2019.
A central issue for jurors is whether Dean, who is white, saw Jefferson’s gun before he pulled the trigger. Jefferson, who was Black, grabbed the gun after hearing a noise in the backyard, according to testimony. Dean and a fellow officer did not identify themselves as police officers, and prosecutors told jurors in opening statements Dean did not act in self-defense.
“I did see that weapon pointed at me,” Dean insisted to jurors. “The gun was pointed directly at me.”
Jefferson, 28, was playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew when a concerned neighbor called a nonemergency police line.The doors were open, her nephew, now 11, testified, because they burned hamburgers and were airing out the smoke.
Dean testified for nearly four hours. He told jurors they needed “to hear from me and hear the truth.” Dean looked at the jury while his attorneys questioned him and seemed to make eye contact with some. He grew emotional at times and cried. Jurors fixated on him and scribbled notes.
Dean became demure as Tarrant County prosecutor Dale Smith raised his voice and forcefully asked about the night he killed Jefferson. His eyes often shifted toward his lawyers, parents and sister, prompting Smith to ask what he was looking at.
Prosecutors rested their case last week after three days of testimony. Prosecutors didn’t call use of force experts to offer opinions about whether Dean’s shooting was justified or Jefferson’s right to defend herself. They did question Dean on Monday about Jefferson’s right to arm herself. Defense lawyers are expected to present their own use-of-force experts Tuesday.
On Monday, certified forensic video evidence expert Grant Fredericks showed jurors images from Dean’s body camera footage to help jurors see what Dean may have seen, although he noted the camera’s view would likely not be as good as Dean’s vision. Fredericks said less than a second passed between when Dean shouted commands and he fired his weapon.
“Put your hands up, show me your hands, show …” Dean yelled, the gunshot cutting off his commands, according to Fredericks’ analysis.
Dean testified the street was dark and light spilled out of the front door when the officers were called to the 1200 block of East Allen Avenue for an “open structure.” Dean said Monday and his partner testified last week they believed the house was burglarized. Dean said he saw damage on one of the doors and a screwdriver nearby. He said, inside the home, “objects were just strewn all over the floor” and “it looked ransacked, it was a mess.”
Fredericks’ analysis of the body-camera footage audio recorded Dean mention a “break in” to his partner, but the rest of what he said is inaudible.
Dean said he didn’t think the owners were home when he walked around the house and used his flashlight to push open a gate to the backyard. He noticed the window and said he leaned over to see if it was jimmied or pried open. The window was not damaged. He told jurors he did not have his gun drawn when he walked through the gate.
“As I looked through that window, low in the window, I observed a person — couldn’t tell Black, white, male, female,” he said. “The upper arms were moving like someone was reaching for something or grasping.”
He then told jurors: “I thought we had a burglar, so I stepped back, straightened up and drew my weapon and then pointed it toward the figure.” Dean said he couldn’t see the person’s hands.
Dean’s lawyers said in opening statements last week Dean saw a green laser on Jefferson’s gun. Dean did not say in his testimony that he saw the green laser before he fired. His body-camera footage captures him exhale and announce he found Jefferson’s gun inside her bedroom. He told jurors the gun had a green laser attachment and, once inside the home, he realized “how close we came to dying.”
His voice quivered as he described firing the lethal shot.
Dean, while being questioned by the prosecution, said Jefferson was bent over and stood upright as he drew his gun. He said her gun was near her chest. But Smith said Dean couldn’t tell if her arms were extended or if the gun was in a raised position ready to fire.
Dean said he shouted, “Put up your hands, show me your hands, show me your hands.”
“And as I started to get that second phrase out, ‘Show me your hands,’ I saw the silhouette, I was looking right down the barrel of a gun,” he said. “And when I saw that barrel of that gun pointed at me, I fired a single shot from my duty weapon.”
Dean said he heard Jefferson scream and fall.
“I knew I’d shot that person,” he said.
His attorneys said in opening statements last week he followed his police training and met deadly force with deadly force. They called Jefferson’s death a “tragic accident.”
Prosecutors lambasted Dean on the stand about whether his actions were “good police work” and asked Dean to grade his decisions. The former officer gave himself high marks but said “there’s probably things I could have done better.”
“I think I did a fine job,” Dean said, which drew reactions from spectators in the courtroom gallery. Observers looked at each other and one woman quietly scoffed.
Dean and his partner testified they did not identify themselves in case a burglar was inside and police policies did not require they announce their presence at an “open structure” call. However, Smith while questioning Dean suggested that using his flashlight to scan the backyard would alert anyone in the home that they were outside.
Smith said Dean was “cavalier” about being in a private citizen’s backyard and implied Jefferson might still be alive if Dean had announced police officers were present.
Outside the presence of the jury, Smith showed Dean a police report from another open structure call the former officer responded to in 2019. Dean recalled he announced his presence during that call. But Dean reiterated they believed a burglar was inside Jefferson’s home and did not want to give away their position.
Prosecutors said last week during opening statements Dean did not follow proper police procedures for responding to an open structure call. The officers did not secure and guard the exits or attempt to call the homeowners, according to testimony.
Smith said it was against Dean’s training to shoot without knowing what was behind Jefferson. Dean said he “took a well aimed shot” but agreed.
Carol Darch, Dean’s partner on the call, testified last week Dean didn’t say he saw a gun before firing or as the cops ran inside the house after he shot Jefferson.
Smith pressed Dean on Monday on why he didn’t alert Darch to a threat or move outside of the window’s sightline. Smith again asked whether that was “good police work.”
“No,” Dean responded.
Prosecutors said last week and Dean’s body-camera footage shows he did not tend to Jefferson’s wound once inside. A medical examiner said last week the bullet pierced Jefferson’s heart.
“I get to that back bedroom and off to my right I see a kid,” Dean said.
Zion Carr, Jefferson’s nephew, was in the room when she was shot.
“And I’m thinking ‘who brings a kid to a burglary, what is going on?’” Dean said. “I see a dog and at that point I’m just like … ‘Shut up and work, shut up and work, get the weapon, render aid to her, get the weapon, render aid to the person.’”
Dean initially said “a while” lapsed before he gave CPR to Jefferson, but when questioned by Smith, he said he never tried to resuscitate her. He said he was “about to” when more officers arrived. Dean said he rolled Jefferson over and pressed an afghan on her chest. Defense lawyers said Dean did not have a trauma medical kit at the time of the shooting.
Jefferson’s brother, Adarius Carr, shifted in his seat as Dean testified. Carr frequently reached for Life Savers from a bag at his feet and chewed the candies. Adarius Carr and his sister, Ashley Carr, passed notes to each other while Dean testified. Amber Carr, Zion’s mother, was absent. Amber Carr, who has struggled with health ailments, wasn’t feeling well Monday morning, relatives said.
Zion told a child forensic interviewer the morning of the shooting that Jefferson pointed a gun toward the window. But on the stand, Zion said she kept the gun at her side. Zion also told the interviewer he heard someone yell outside the window and thought he saw a police badge. But on the stand, Zion said he didn’t hear or see anything outside. Defense lawyers later implied to the judge they believe Zion was coached to give a different account of the shooting.
Dean killing Jefferson sparked nationwide outrage and became a watershed moment previewing 2020′s widespread social justice protests. Although some of the 12 jurors and two alternates are people of color, none are Black.
Dean faces up to life in prison if convicted of murder. Before Dean’s arrest, no Tarrant County officer had ever faced a murder charge, the district attorney’s office said at the time.
Jefferson has been described by family as a doting aunt and aspiring doctor who grew up in Dallas’ Oak Cliff area and graduated from Xavier University of Louisiana. She’d moved into the East Allen Avenue home to care for her ailing mother and Zion, whose mother was also in poor health.