FORT WORTH — Jurors will resume deliberations Thursday about the fate of former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean. Jurors must decide whether he committed murder, manslaughter or no crime at all when he fatally shot a Black woman inside her mother’s home.
Dean, 38, faces up to life in prison if convicted of murder in the shooting death of 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson. Dean, who is white, shot Jefferson through her bedroom window from the backyard when the officer responded to a call at the East Fort Worth home.
A concerned neighbor called a nonemergency police line about 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 12, 2019, because the doors of the home were open and lights were on inside. Jefferson and her 8-year-old nephew were up late playing video games and left the doors open to air out smoke after they burned hamburgers at dinnertime.
The Tarrant County jury may also consider a lesser charge of manslaughter, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years. The difference is whether jurors believe Dean acted intentionally or knowingly for a murder conviction versus recklessly for manslaughter. Or they could find him not guilty of both. Although some of the 12 jurors and two alternates are people of color, none is Black.
Jurors deliberated for around 8 hours Wednesday before breaking for the night around 7 p.m. They are sequestered. State troopers were stationed in the Tarrant County courthouse before the jury left the courtroom about 11:15 a.m. Dean’s killing of Jefferson sparked nationwide outrage and became a watershed moment, previewing 2020′s widespread social justice protests.
Key questions for the jury are whether Dean saw Jefferson’s gun — which she grabbed when she heard a noise in the backyard — and if he was justified as an on-duty police officer to shoot her. Prosecutors said Jefferson had a right to defend herself. Dean and a fellow officer did not announce themselves when they responded to the call. Whether Dean and his partner should have announced their presence has been a focus during five days of testimony since the trial began Dec. 5.
Prosecutors argued throughout the trial that Dean did not act in self-defense when he fired the lethal shot that pierced Jefferson’s heart. They said Dean didn’t see Jefferson’s gun or follow proper department procedures when he arrived at the home and investigated what Dean testified he believed was a burglary.
Dean’s lawyer Bob Gill said in closing arguments Wednesday that Dean acted within his Fort Worth police training to meet deadly force with deadly force. Dean testified he saw the barrel of Jefferson’s gun; his lawyers said in opening statements he also saw a green laser attached to his gun pointed at him, however, Dean did not testify to that.
One woman on the jury frequently bit her bottom lip as she listened to lawyers make their final pleas.
Arguments to convict, arguments to acquit
Prosecutor Ashlea Deener described Dean as a “power-hungry” officer with tunnel vision who had a “preconceived notion” about East Fort Worth as a dangerous neighborhood plagued by crime. She said Fort Worth officers were “ashamed” to have called Dean a “brother in blue.”
“It wasn’t important to [Dean] to serve and protect that day,” Deener told jurors during closing arguments. “It was important for him to get there, get in the action. Power can corrupt certain police; certain people do not need to wear a badge. Certain people do not need to have the power and control if they do not respect the accountability and, in this case, the grave effect that it had.”
Deener and fellow prosecutor Dale Smith argued Jefferson had the right to arm and defend the “sanctity, safety” of her home.
About half a second lapsed from the time Dean started shouting commands for Jefferson to show her hands to when he pulled the trigger, an expert for the defense testified.
Smith laid autopsy photos of Jefferson’s hands across the railing of the jury box. He argued that if her hands were raised and she pointed the gun at the window, they’d have injuries from the shattered glass. A medical examiner testified during trial that Jefferson’s chest had bloodied wounds from the shards. Jurors leaned forward and peered at Smith’s photos.
“He never saw that gun,” Smith said. “He didn’t know what he saw.”
Prosecutors said self-defense is justified against another person’s use of unlawful deadly force. But Jefferson’s actions weren’t unlawful because she didn’t know police were on the other side of the window, prosecutors argued.
“She would have to be acting unlawfully for him to get the benefit of self-defense,” Smith said.
Prosecutors also condemned Dean’s decisions that led him to the backyard. They pointed to department procedures that say officers should secure main exits to prevent an offender’s escape. Dean and his partner that night, Carol Darch, saw a front and side door open and walked around the house and entered the gated backyard, leaving the main exits vulnerable, prosecutors said.
“You can’t create the danger and then claim self-defense,” Deener said.
Gill, Dean’s defense attorney, argued Dean was in danger because he saw Jefferson point a gun at him. Gill called pointing a gun at a police officer an “aggressive, provocative act” that elicited Dean to act in self-defense. Gill stressed police work is inherently dangerous.
Dean “saw a firearm pointed at him and, based upon his training, he reacted,” Gill said. “He acted tragically, but he acted correctly under the law. … He reasonably believed that his actions, his deadly force, was immediately necessary to counter [Jefferson’s] use of unlawful deadly force.”
Dean blinked back tears and sniffled as his lawyer played Jefferson’s nephew’s forensic interview taken hours after the shooting. After a few moments, Dean turned around and asked a sheriff’s deputy for a tissue.
What witnesses said
Both sides closed their cases Tuesday afternoon. Prosecutors rested their case-in-chief after three days of testimony last week, surprising some legal experts. They initially did not put on an expert to testify to whether Dean’s killing of Jefferson was justified. But after the defense called three witnesses — including Dean, who testified for about four hours earlier this week — the prosecution called their own police expert who testified as a rebuttal witness.
Jurors heard contradictory opinions on the last day of testimony from the police use-of-force experts about whether Dean acted reasonably.
Prosecutors have said Dean did not follow proper Fort Worth police procedure when he responded to the neighbor’s concerns, which were coded by a call taker as an “open structure.” Smith lambasted Dean on the witness stand about measures prosecutors argued he failed to take when he arrived at the home in the 1200 block of East Allen Avenue.
But Dean and his lawyers said he believed the house was ransacked and a burglar may have been inside. Dean told jurors he saw the barrel of Jefferson’s gun through the window. Dean yelled commands and fired within less than a second, according to testimony.
Jefferson’s nephew, Zion Carr, told a child forensic interviewer the morning of the shooting that Jefferson pointed a gun toward the window. But on the stand last week, the now-11-year-old boy 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 resigned before the police department could fire him, the then-interim police chief said at the time. City officials said Jefferson had a right to defend herself within her home. A gag order prohibits Dean and his defense lawyers, and Jefferson’s family and the prosecutors, from speaking ahead of the end of the trial.
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 also was in poor health.