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Ex-Fort Worth cop Aaron Dean’s murder trial continues this week with 3 main questions

A photo of Aaron Dean, a white man with short, reddish-brown hair, taken from behind. He's looking over his left shoulder and his face is in profile.
Amanda McCoy
/
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
The murder trial of former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean enters its second week after the prosecution rested Wednesday, Dec. 7. Dean is accused of fatally shooting Atatiana Jefferson in 2019 during a police call.

Jurors must decide whether Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean committed murder when he shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson in 2019.

Aaron Dean’s defense attorneys will take center stage in court Monday, as they try to convince the jury that their client shot Atatiana Jefferson in self-defense.

There’s no question that Dean, a Fort Worth police officer at the time, shot and killed Jefferson in the early hours of Oct. 12, 2019.

Jefferson left the outside doors to her home open into the early morning hours. A neighbor called a non-emergency number, concerned about the open doors, and asked if someone could check on Jefferson. Dean and his partner responded to the call, and when they went into the backyard, Dean shot Jefferson through her bedroom window, less than a second after commanding her to put her hands up.

Dean’s trial began last week after repeated delays. The prosecution’s arguments came first, and they worked to convince the jury that Dean's negligence that night led to murder.

Meanwhile, the defense maintained that Dean shot in self-defense. The shooting was a "tragic accident," but justified, Dean’s attorneys said.

Dean is charged with felony first-degree murder. If the jury convicts, he could face up to life in prison, according to court documents.

The prosecution rested its case Wednesday after about two and a half days of opening statements and testimony. A few main questions cropped up again and again in the first days of the trial.

1. Does it matter what type of call the police responded to? 

Jefferson’s neighbor James Smith made the call that brought police to Jefferson’s house. He chose to call a non-emergency number about her open doors, not 911, he said during his testimony Tuesday.

“I wasn’t really sure what was going on. It didn’t appear to be an emergency,” he said.

James Smith, an older Bklack man wearing a suit and tie, gives a small thumbs-up as he walks through a courtroom. Prosecutor Ashlea Deener, a white woman wearing a suit, raised her hand next to him.
Amanda McCoy
/
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
James Smith, the neighbor of Atatiana Jefferson, gives a thumbs after testifying on the witness stand during the second day of the murder trial of Aaron Dean on Tuesday, December 6, 2022, in Fort Worth. Dean is accused of fatally shooting Atatiana Jefferson in 2019 during an open structure call.

Non-emergency calls and 911 calls go to the same people, said Abriel Talbert, the call taker who talked to Smith. She testified Tuesday that when she picked how to categorize the call, she didn’t choose “welfare check,” but what’s called an “open structure,” meaning a building or home standing open.

Call takers have the training and discretion to categorize calls as they see fit, Talbert said.

"It doesn’t matter whether they call [in] a non-emergency or emergency,” she said. “We go by the details."

Dean and his partner reacted normally to a call that could be dangerous, the defense argued. The police didn’t know Smith had called a non-emergency number. After looking into the house through the storm doors, Dean and his partner Officer Carol Darch saw open cabinets and clutter and thought the house was being ransacked, Darch testified Tuesday.

Prosecutors insisted that regardless of what they knew, Dean and Darch botched the call. They never tried to call the homeowner, which is proper protocol for open structure calls, according to the prosecution.

2. Did Dean know that Atatiana Jefferson had a gun? 

Jefferson’s nephew, Zion Carr, was 8 years old when he witnessed his aunt’s shooting. Now 11, he was the first to testify in the trial.

His aunt heard a noise outside and pulled her gun out of her purse before she went to the window, Carr told the court. Then Dean shot her from the outside.

Dean knew Jefferson had a gun, defense attorney Miles Brissette said, because he could see her gun’s green pointing laser trained on him.

“That officer considered that to be deadly force against him and reacted accordingly, and tragically, Miss Jefferson lost her life,” Brissette said.

Dean’s partner, Officer Carol Darch, testified that she never saw a gun, just Jefferson’s eyes in the window, “as big as saucers.”

Officer Carol Darch, a white woman with light brown hair pulled back in a braided bun, sits on the witness stand in a courtroom. Her eyes are slightly red and wet with tears. She's wearing a black Fort Worth police dress uniform, with a badge and a tie.
Amanda McCoy
/
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Fort Worth police officer Carol Darch testifies during the second day of the murder trial of Aaron Dean on Tuesday, December 6, 2022, in Fort Worth. Darch was the other officer on scene when Atatiana Jefferson was shot and killed by former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean in 2019.

Dean also never warned Darch there was a gun before he fired, Darch testified.

There is no evidence that Dean knew Jefferson had a gun, prosecutor Ashlea Deener said in her opening statement. Never-before-released footage from Dean’s body camera shows Dean going into Jefferson’s house after the shooting and finding Jefferson in her bedroom.

“When we play that video, I want you guys to listen to the sigh and what he said next: ‘Looks like we got a weapon,’” she said. Then she gestured back towards Dean. “Thank God, right?”

When Dean found Jefferson on the ground, he made no attempt to save her life, Deener said.

Deputy Medical Examiner Richard Fries performed the autopsy on Jefferson’s body. Paramedics didn’t have much of a chance to save her, he said. The bullet pierced her heart and liver.

“These are very devastating wounds. I would not expect somebody to survive them,” Fries said.

3. Does it matter the neighborhood Atatiana Jefferson lived in? 

The defense repeatedly brought up high crime levels in Jefferson’s neighborhood as one of the “data points” Dean may have considered that night. She lived at 1203 E Allen Avenue, south of downtown Fort Worth and east of I-35.

An AC unit at Jefferson’s house had a cage around it to prevent theft, Brissette said in his opening statement.

Despite neighbors’ efforts to improve the area, “it’s still a rough neighborhood,” he said.

The defense pressed multiple witnesses about crime in the area. One of the paramedics who tried to save Jefferson’s life, Francisco Chairez, took the stand Wednesday. Attorney Bob Gill asked him if he had ever responded to other shootings, stabbings or cuttings in the neighborhood before.

Atatiana Jefferson, a Black woman wearing black glasses and a teal shirt, smiles for a photograph with a young boy who makes a silly face. She's sitting in a restaurant and flipping through a menu.
Amanda McCoy
/
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
A photograph of Atatiana Jefferson was submitted as evidence during her sister Ashley Carr’s testimony on Wednesday, December 7, 2022, in Fort Worth.

Gill also asked Jefferson’s neighbor who made the non-emergency call, James Smith, about how he felt about the crime rates in his neighborhood. There could be less crime, Smith said, but he refused to paint his neighborhood with a wide brush.

“It’s pretty plain that there’s quite a bit of crime over there, isn’t there?” Gill said.

“I don’t know the stats, but there is crime over there,” Smith said.

Later, Gill asked again: “Is there a little crime, or a lot of crime?”

“I don’t know the stats,” Smith said.

Regardless of what happens the rest of the neighborhood, his block is quiet, Smith said. He’s lived on East Allen Avenue for 60 years, and many of his family members live on the street, too.

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at msuarez@kera.org. You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

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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.