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‘Start the healing process’: Aaron Dean guilty of manslaughter

Ben Gillis.JPG
Sandra Sadek
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Fort Worth Report
Fort Worth resident Benson Gillis makes his disappointment about the verdict heard through his megaphone in front of the Tim Curry Justice Center on Dec. 15.

Some Fort Worth leaders hoped for “compassion and grace” while others expressed outrage after a jury convicted former Police Officer Aaron Dean of manslaughter in the killing of Atatiana Jefferson.

City officials braced for protests based on the trial’s outcome. The first few hours after the verdict was read at 2:37 p.m. Dec. 15 at the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center offered a contrast: The city of Fort Worth was mostly quiet but inside and around the courthouse the tension ran high.

Immediately after the verdict, a crowd of people screamed, chanted and cried inside the courthouse. They continued their chants as they exited the courtroom, where a group of about 10 remained to chant “No justice, no peace” and confront Dean’s family as they left.

Away from the courthouse, the Fort Worth Tarrant County branch of the NAACP issued a statement “expressing relief that justice was served.”

“We’re optimistic that this decision may represent a paradigm shift, where we begin to overcome racial and social injustices locally, regionally, and nationally that have been pervasive in policing. Whatever you feel about today’s verdict, it’s another reminder of how much more we have to do to heal as a nation,” said the statement issued by branch president Estella Williams.

Fort Worth activist Trice Jones, who raised money to create a mural honoring Jefferson, told KERA News she was deeply disappointed Dean escaped a murder conviction.

“Black people are not safe in Fort Worth — Black people are not safe,” Jones said.

Mayor Mattie Parker said in a statement that the verdict “provides a measure of justice, though it does not change the fact that a tragedy occurred that should have never happened.”

“This tragedy for me has always been about Atatiana Jefferson — about her life as a daughter, sister, and aunt, and her lasting legacy,” Parker said. “Many people in our community are hurting, and we must come together with compassion and grace.”

Aaron Dean.JPG
Fort Worth Report
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Aaron Dean booking mug photo.

Dean’s sentencing hearing is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. Dec. 16 at the courthouse. A conviction for manslaughter carries a range of two to 20 years in prison.

Dean, 38, was booked into the Lon Evans Correction Center after the verdict. Dean’s family left the courthouse without comment.

Council member Chris Nettles said the community has waited “1,160 days for justice to be served. And yet… justice still hasn’t been served.”

“This verdict is a slap in the face to the Black communities in Fort Worth and across the country,” he said. “This verdict says that a white man can murder a Black woman in her own home with nothing more than a slap on the wrist — literally.

“I don’t know where we go from here, but I do know that things need to change.”

In October 2019, Dean was sent to Jefferson’s home after a neighbor noticed her door was open. Dean searched around the home and saw someone near a window. Inside, Jefferson, 28, and her nephew were staying up late and playing video games.

Body camera footage showed Dean drawing his gun and shouting, “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” He immediately fired his gun. The video showed Dean did not identify himself as an officer. Days later, Dean quit and was charged with murder.

After receiving the case Dec. 14, the jury deliberated for 13 ½ hours. Jurors also considered a murder conviction.

Fort Worth Mayor Pro Tem Gyna Bivens told the Fort Worth Report she felt a sense of release.

“Now, who knows what the punishment phase will entail and the victim impact statements? But I think getting to some resolution with this case can at least start the healing process for my city,” Bivens said.

Bivens said she expects the legacy of the case to be focused on Jefferson. Already, a street was named after her and her family established a nonprofit called the Atatiana Project in her honor.

“People who have been touched by this are taking steps to make sure her memory and legacy is never forgotten,” Bivens said.

U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, called on the Tarrant County district attorney and the city of Fort Worth to take action.

“Going forward, the Tarrant County District Attorney must thoroughly and properly investigate cases like this and fight hard enough for fair jury representation,” Veasey said in a statement. “It’s time for the city of Fort Worth to create a civilian police review board that boosts transparency and accountability.”

The City Council voted 5-4 last month against creating a police oversight board.

Mark Kirkland, a bishop at Greater St. Mark Ministries, said he considered the verdict a small step in the right direction.

“This is a baby step for us. It’s a victory,” Kirkland told the Fort Worth Report.

In the days leading up to the trial, Kirkland told his congregation, friends and family not to expect a murder conviction. Even if the jury determined that, Kirkland said, he expected it to eventually be overturned.

Kirkland started his activism 26 years ago. Back then, he would have never thought an officer would get indicted on a murder charge — let alone go to court, he said.

Cory Session, vice president of the Innocence Project of Texas, said the verdict of murder is a hard bar to reach in court. He said manslaughter makes sense as a verdict.

“Do I think if he’s sentenced by the jury, they will give him 20 years? I don’t believe so,” he said. “I think the most he’s probably looking at his five to 10.”

Fort Worth resident Tonya Carter was among the people who gathered outside the courthouse waiting for the verdict.

She was shocked when the jury determined former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean was found guilty, she said. She expected a hung jury.

Still, she had a sense of disappointment. Manslaughter is a lesser charge than murder and comes with a lighter punishment, she said.

Carter was not sure if justice had been served, she said. But she still has hope for the future and for an overhaul of the city government and justice system.

“This is just the beginning,” she told the Report.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

4:10 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15: Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said Thursday’s verdict is a measure of justice that does not change the fact that Atatiana Jefferson’s death should have never happened.

“This tragedy for me has always been about Atatiana Jefferson — about her life as a daughter, sister and aunt and her lasting legacy,” Parker said in a statement. “Many people in our community are hurting, and we must come together with compassion and grace.”

Parker offered her prayers to the jury as it determines what sentence former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean should serve.

“May God bless Atatiana’s memory and continue to be with her family,” Parker said.

4:05 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15: Mark Kirkland, a bishop at Greater St. Mark Ministries, had a mixed reaction to Thursday’s guilty verdict, but considered it a step in the right direction.

“This is a baby step for us. It’s a victory,” Kirkland told the Fort Worth Report.

In the days leading up to the trial, Kirkland told his congregation, friends and family not to expect a murder conviction. Even if the jury determined that, Kirkland said he expected it to eventually be overturned.

Kirkland started his activism 26 years ago. Back then, he would have never thought an officer would get indicted on a murder charge — let alone go to court, he said.

Fort Worth resident Tonya Carter was among the people who gathered outside of Tim Curry Justice Center waiting for the verdict.

She said she was shocked when the jury determined former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean was guilty. She fully expected a hung jury.

Still, she had a sense of disappointment. Manslaughter is a lesser charge than murder and comes with a different punishment, she said.

Carter was not sure if justice had been served, she said. But she said she still has hope for the future and for an overhaul of the city government and justice system.

“This is just the beginning,” she told the Report.

Allison Campolo, the chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, called Thursday a solemn day. She said elected officials and residents need to push for a better justice system.

3:18 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15: Fort Worth Councilman Alan Blaylock described Thursday’s verdict as hopefully bringing some closure to Atatiana Jefferson’s family and friends after waiting for this moment for three years.

“I respect today’s jury’s decision. I know it doesn’t eliminate the grief and pain for the ones that were closest to Atatiana, a loss they will likely feel for the rest of their lives,” Blaylock said. “The gravity of this tragedy has made this a challenging time for all of Fort Worth.”

As a council member, Blaylock said he is committed to working with residents and the rest of the City Council to ensure Jefferson is remembered and honored in Fort Worth.

He also said he plans to work with Police Chief Neil Noakes and listen to the community to build a better and more inclusive police department and City Hall.

“With every day forward, we must learn, grow, and remain committed to being a city where all residents are protected, respected, and listened to,” he said.

3:15 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15: The Fort Worth Tarrant County Branch of the NAACP said it is expressing relief that justice was served in the Aaron Dean verdict.

“We’re optimistic that this decision may represent a paradigm shift, where we begin to overcome racial and social injustices locally, regionally, and nationally that have been pervasive in policing,” local NAACP President Estella Williams said in a statement. “Whatever you feel about today’s verdict, it’s another reminder of how much more we have to do to heal as a nation.”

3:10 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 15: U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, called Thursday’s guilty verdict a small step to delivering justice for Atatiana Jefferson and her family.

“While this verdict means the officer who killed Atatiana will finally be held accountable for his actions, it will never give Atatiana her life back or return her to her family,” Veasey said in a statement.

Still, the congressman said work is needed at the national and local levels to ensure another similar event does not happen again.

He called on the Tarrant County district attorney and the city of Fort Worth to take action.

“Going forward, the Tarrant County District Attorney must thoroughly and properly investigate cases like this and fight hard enough for fair jury representation,” Veasey said. “It’s time for the city of Fort Worth to create a civilian police review board that boosts transparency and accountability.”

At the federal level, Congress also must step up, the congressman said.

“The Senate must also finally pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that we in the U.S. House of Representatives have already passed multiple times,” Veasey said. “I proudly supported this critical legislation that addresses racial bias and increases accountability within police departments to build trust between law enforcement and the communities like the ones in Fort Worth.”

3:05 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 15: Fort Worth Mayor Pro Tem Gyna Bivens told the Fort Worth Report she is feeling a sense of relief now that a former police officer was found guilty of manslaughter in the shooting death of Atatiana Jefferson.

“Now, who knows what the punishment phase will entail and the victim impact statements. But I think getting to some resolve with this case, can at least start the healing process for my city,” Bivens said.

The guilty verdict was a step in the right direction, Bivens said.

Bivens expects the legacy of the case to be focused on Jefferson. Already, a street was named after her and her family established a nonprofit called the Atatiana Project in her honor.

“People who have been touched by this are taking steps to make sure her memory and legacy is never forgotten,” Bivens said.

2:55 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15: After a judge read former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean’s guilty verdict, some people were voicing their disappointment in the Tarrant County jury’s decision.

#BREAKING Aaron Dean was found guilty of manslaughter in the death of Atatiana Jefferson @FortWorthReport

People are voicing their distress and disappointment with the jury’s decision. pic.twitter.com/KDlkAYQbAB— Sandra Sadek (@ssadek19) December 15, 2022

Lawyer Pete Schulte, a former Dallas County prosecutor, expects an appeal. He said he did not believe the jury applied the law correctly in this case.

Lawyer Matt Tympanic, a legal analyst with the Law & Crime Network, described the verdict as a compromise.

2:37 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15: A Tarrant County jury Thursday found former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean guilty of manslaughter in the 2019 killing Atatiana Jefferson in her home.

2:15 p.m.: The Aaron Dean verdict will be read about 2:30 p.m., according to officials. Stand by for live updates and reaction from the Tarrant County Courthouse.

A Tarrant County jury is deliberating on the verdict of a former Fort Worth police officer who shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson in her home during a late-night call.

The jury’s eventual decision for Aaron Dean, the former officer, will come after a weeklong trial that was repeatedly delayed. Judge George Gallagher of the 396th District Court is overseeing the trial.

The Fort Worth Report will update this story as soon as the verdict is read.

Here’s what you need to know about the Dean trial.

What led to the trial?

In October 2019, a neighbor of Jefferson noticed her door was open and called a non-emergency line for a welfare check. Dispatch did not send officers for a welfare check, but for an open structure call instead. Dean, then a police officer, was sent to check Jefferson’s home.

Using flashlights, officers searched the home from the outside and saw someone near a window. Inside, Jefferson and her nephew were staying up late and playing video games.

Body camera footage showed Dean drawing his gun and shouting, “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” He immediately fired his gun. The video showed Dean did not identify himself as an officer.

Days later, Dean quit the Fort Worth Police Department and was charged with murder. The police chief at the time said Dean acted without justification and would have been fired.

Other leaders and residents also spoke out. Then-Mayor Besty Price apologized to Jefferson’s family.

“There is nothing to justify or explain what happened on Saturday morning. Nothing,” Price said in 2019.

Who was Atatiana Jefferson?

Jefferson was 28 when she died.

She was a 2014 graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology.

The Jefferson family lawyer told KERA News she was working in pharmaceutical equipment sales and was considering going to medical school.

To honor Jefferson’s life, her family established the Atatiana Project, a nonprofit that gives children of color opportunities to explore careers in science, technology, education, arts and math.

What now?

Civic leaders and residents braced for the outcome of the trial for more than a year. The verdict is expected to test the city as leaders deal with the fallout and likely protests.

The weekend before the jury started deliberations, a casket with Atatiana Jefferson’s name on it was placed outside Mayor Mattie Parker’s home. The casket also included the names of other residents who Fort Worth police shot.

Activists and some residents believe the city needs greater reforms, such as the establishment of a community oversight board for the police department.

In November, the City Council decided it would not create a community oversight board, one of 22 recommendations that Fort Worth’s task force on race and culture suggested in 2018..

Reforming the police department and how the city government deals with race will likely be an issue in the upcoming May 6 municipal elections.