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Aaron Dean’s murder trial begins with major question: Was police shooting justified?

Aaron Dean trial
Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com
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Pool/Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Aaron Dean arrives to the 396th District Court in Fort Worth on Monday, December 5, 2022, for the first day of his trial in the killing of Atatiana Jefferson. Dean, a former Fort Worth police officer, is accused of fatally shooting Jefferson in 2019.

Aaron Dean is accused of shooting and killing Atatiana Jefferson while on duty as a Fort Worth police officer in 2019. His defense team argues he acted in self-defense, while the prosecution says he took none of the reasonable steps he should have taken before he used deadly force.

The prosecution and defense agree on the basic facts.

Dean, a former Fort Worth police officer, responded to a call at Jefferson’s home in the early hours of October 12, 2019. Dean shot Jefferson through a window. Jefferson had a gun at the time she was shot.

From there, the opening statements each side gave Monday told two different stories. The prosecution argued that Dean skipped every step he should have taken before using deadly force and took Jefferson’s life without justification. Dean’s defense team said he acted in self-defense and followed protocol based on what he knew about the situation.

Judge George Gallagher of the 396th District Court is presiding on this case.

The prosecution’s opening statement

Prosecutor Ashlea Deener spoke directly to the jury, telling them that Dean robbed Jefferson of the safety everyone is supposed to have in their home.

"For Atatiana Jefferson, her home was not her refuge. It was not her sanctuary or her safe place. It was her demise,” Deener said. “And she left in a body bag because of what he did."

Deener laid out what Jefferson was doing the day before she died. The 28-year-old lived with her ailing mother. Jefferson helped care for her mom, as well as her 8-year-old nephew, Zion Carr. Her mother was in the hospital, so on the night of the shooting, it was just Jefferson and Zion in the house.
Jefferson tried to teach Zion how to mow the lawn. They also tried to make some hamburgers, but they burned the hamburgers and opened the outside doors to let out the smoke, Deener said.

Those open doors led to the police call that ended Jefferson’s life, Deener said.

Jefferson and Zion stayed up late playing video games, and one of Jefferson’s neighbors, James Smith, saw the open doors and called a non-emergency line. He wanted someone to check on the house.

Aaron Dean and his partner Carol Darch responded.

The jury will see the body camera footage of the incident many times, Deener said, but they’ll never hear Dean identify himself as a police officer.

"They don’t announce. They don’t knock. They don’t ring the doorbell. They don’t step back and call for backup,” Deener said.

There is no evidence showing Dean saw Jefferson holding her gun, Deener said. Dean yelled at Jefferson through her bedroom window, commanding her to put her hands up. But he didn’t give her a second to process, let alone follow the command, Deener said.

“Show me your hands, put your hands up, BOOM," Deener said, clapping to mimic a gunshot.

After going inside the home, Dean did not administer CPR or other lifesaving measures, Deener said, but when he heard more officers and medical personnel arrive, he put a blanket on her chest.

There’s no way this case is one of self-defense, Deener said. She asked the jury to hold Dean accountable for murder.

The defense’s opening statements

Dean’s defense team argued that Dean did act in self-defense and that he followed protocol for what he knew about the situation. One of Dean’s attorneys, Miles Brissette, told the jury to focus not on emotions, but on a specific set of facts.

"What did Dean know at the time, and what did he do with it?” he said.

While Smith may have intended to ask for a welfare check on Jefferson’s house, the call center operator used the information Smith gave and coded it as a signal 56, or an open structure call, Brissette said. An open structure call could be a dangerous situation.

"The word ‘welfare’ is never said. They're given a signal 56. It’s not a welfare check for Dean and Darch,” Brissette said.

Dean and Darch stayed silent outside the house because that’s how their general orders tell them to respond to such a call, according to Brissette.

Dean and Darch saw a house that “to them, [appeared] to be ransacked,” perhaps because of a burglary in process, he said. They also took the neighborhood into account. People on East Allen protect their AC units from theft with cages, Brissette said.

"This is a neighborhood in transition. Mr. Smith and his other neighbors have worked hard to get the criminal element out of their neighborhood, yet it’s still a rough neighborhood,” Brissette said.

The defense also disagreed with the prosecution's assertion that Dean could not see Jefferson’s gun.

Brissette told the jury that Dean could see a silhouette with a gun in Jefferson’s window, and that he could see the gun’s pointing laser trained on him.

Dean fired to protect himself, Brissette said.

"Everybody in the United States has a right to defend themselves in their home. This is a tragic accident. This gun was placed in line of a police officer. A green laser was placed on the officer. That officer considered that to be deadly force against him and reacted accordingly, and tragically, Miss Jefferson lost her life,” Brissette said.

Testimony from Jefferson’s nephew

08 - Aaron Dean Day 1.JPG
Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com
/
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Zion Carr, 11, testifies during the murder trial of former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean on Monday, December 5, 2022. Carr was Atatiana Jefferson’s nephew and present when she was shot and killed by Dean in 2019.

Zion Carr was in the room when Jefferson – his Aunt Tay, as she was known -- was shot. He's 11 years old now, and the court called him as the first to testify in the trial. The child took the stand wearing a suit and tie.

Prosecutor Dale Smith started off by asking Zion about his life. He’s in 6th grade. He likes school, and his favorite subject is math, he said. He loves basketball and wants to play in the NBA, but if that doesn’t work out, he’d like to be a scientist.

Zion said he never heard anyone say anything through the window the night his aunt died. When his aunt got shot, he knew she was hurt because she was crying and shaking, he said. He remembered wondering if he was dreaming.

Attorneys on both sides questioned Zion about an interview he gave about the shooting to Lindsey Dula at the Alliance for Children, shortly after the incident. His recollections on the stand sometimes conflicted with what he has said previously, attorneys said. Zion said repeatedly he did not remember elements of the interview he gave after the shooting.

Prosecutor Dale Smith told the judge it’s not unusual for kids to remember things differently on the witness stand. The defense said they’re satisfied with that.

During a break in Zion’s testimony, Gallagher called Seychelle Leake up to the stand. She’s a local racial justice activist who has been present at many of Dean’s pretrial hearings. Gallagher said she had been gesturing to Zion and sent her out into the hallway before warning the gallery that no witness coaching is allowed.

Judge denies motion to move trial outside Tarrant County

Before opening statements, Gallagher denied Dean’s request to move the trial out of Tarrant County.

Dean’s attorneys argued that media coverage of the case made it impossible to seat an impartial jury.

This is the second change of venue motion a judge has denied in this case. That means Dean’s trial will begin Monday after repeated delays.

The court will work a half day in order to allow people to attend the funeral of Dean’s lead attorney, Jim Lane.

Lane died Nov. 27.

Miranda Suarez is KERA’s Fort Worth reporter. Before coming to North Texas, she was the Lee Ester News Fellow at Wisconsin Public Radio, where she covered statewide news from the capital city of Madison. Miranda is originally from Massachusetts and started her public radio career at WBUR in Boston.