Aaron Dean, a former police officer from Fort Worth, was found guilty of manslaughter concerning the shooting of Atatiana Jefferson. Through the window of her bedroom, she was shot.
A Texas jury on Thursday convicted a white police officer of manslaughter after he shot and killed a Black woman while responding to a call from a worried neighbor and fired a bullet through her bedroom window.
Aaron Dean, the cop, was found not guilty by the jury in Fort Worth of the murder charge that the prosecution had sought. After the two-week trial that was held after years of delays, he might receive a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Atatiana Jefferson, who was playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew at the time of the shooting, heard a commotion and got her revolver before going to peek out her bedroom window. Mr. Dean yelled at Ms. Jefferson to put her arms up and fired a single shot through the window after receiving a call from a neighbor who had seen open doors at the house late at night.
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“She started crying,” Ms. Jefferson’s nephew, Zion Carr, told the jury in testimony last week. He said his aunt collapsed near the window, moaning in pain before she died. “I was thinking, is it a dream?”
The incident occurred years before two cases with greater media attention—the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by white police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, respectively—which spurred a national conversation about race and policing. However, Ms. Jefferson’s passing in Fort Worth exposed a long-standing suspicion of the police in Black and Latino communities throughout Texas.
Vigils evolved into public demonstrations, which occasionally resulted in tense clashes between residents and elected authorities. At first, Fort Worth police reacted quickly to the wrath of the populace. Days after Mr. Dean was taken into custody, the Fort Worth Police Department made the officer’s body-worn camera available.
However, even though the officers in Mr. Floyd and Ms. Taylor’s cases went on trial, the Fort Worth trial dragged on for years due to several setbacks brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, personal tragedies, and defense strategy.
Defense attorneys said in court documents that David Hagerman, the judge assigned to the case after two years of legal back and forth, had displayed bias towards their team and treated them with hostility. Over the summer, the judge was dismissed from the case.
When it was revealed that Jim Lane, the lead defense attorney, had been given a terminal illness, the trial had already seen another postponement. In late November, Mr. Lane passed away the day before jury selection started.
On December 6, a new judge, George Gallagher, and 14 jurors—none of whom are Black—started the trial.
During the trial, prosecutors argued that Mr. Dean acted recklessly and used excessive force during a routine call where no one appeared to be in imminent danger. “This is not a self-defense case. This is murder,” Ashlea Deener, the assistant district attorney, told the jury.
Miles Brissette, representing the officer, said his client was not able to discern Ms. Jefferson’s gender or race from where he stood outside her window and that he acted in self-defense only after he noticed a person holding a gun with “a green laser mounted on it pointing directly at him.”
“This is a tragic accident,” Mr. Brissette said.
Mr. Dean testified in his defense and, at one point, admitted that the way he responded to the call “could’ve been better.” But he emphasized that he was trained to “stop the threat.”
The Fort Worth Police Officers Association, the union representing Mr. Dean at the time, claimed that he had never been the focus of an inquiry and was “extremely rattled up” by the shooting. The union said the only noteworthy mention in his personnel file was a car accident. One month after finishing his training at the police school, in April 2018, he began working for the organization.
The first witness called was Ms. Jefferson’s young nephew.
His mother was ill and unable to care for him, so he recalled moving in shortly before the shooting with his grandmother and his Aunt Tay, as he called her. His aunt, who obtained a biology degree from the Xavier University of Louisiana in 2014 and worked as a sales representative for medical supplies, had aspirations of attending medical school. The youngster testified to the jury that she also had a fun side and enjoyed playing video games with him.
Zion testified that on the evening of October 12, 2019, the two burned some of the hamburgers they were preparing and opened two doors to let the smoke out.
According to a synopsis of the incidents provided by the prosecution, a neighbor saw that the doors were open at around 2:30 a.m. and contacted a nonemergency number to report it while Zion had gone to bed and his aunt had stayed up playing video games.
At the time, Mr. Dean and Carol Darch, his partner, were fresh police academy grads, responded to the call for an “open structure,” which was a nebulous description that might refer to anything from a burglary in progress to a report of an abandoned home. Prosecutors claimed that it was not a welfare check, in which case officers would frequently knock on the doors or phone inside.
Zion said that “he had awakened and joined his aunt playing video games by that time. He claimed that Ms. Jefferson then heard an odd noise coming from the outside and grabbed for a revolver she had been carrying in her purse.”
Ms. Deener, the prosecutor, said Mr. Dean yelled, “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” but never gave Ms. Jefferson a chance to react.
Zion claimed he had no memory of the events leading up to the shooting, only that his aunt had been standing at the window one moment and lying on the ground the next.
“She was crying and just shaking,” he said.
The jury was shown a video interview that was taken two hours after the incident and in which the youngster, still in his pyjamas, supplied more details the day after he gave his testimony. He is overheard telling a woman that he saw his aunt point her gun at the window and that he could make out an officer’s badge, flashlight, and gun on the other side of the glass.
In the same video, he also claimed to have heard the police yell and order his aunt to put her hands up; when she disobeyed, he claimed, the officer shot his gun. He made these claims before the jury.
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He claimed that on the night of the occurrence, he had been perplexed and unsure whether what he had seen was genuine or a dream. Days later, he discovered she had passed away.
On December 15, 2022, a Tarrant County jury found former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean guilty of the death of Atatiana Jefferson in October 2019.
Dean was charged with murder after shooting and killing Jefferson while responding to an “open structure” report that night. He was guilty of manslaughter, a lesser penalty.
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