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‘Still mourning her loss’: North Texans honor Atatiana Jefferson, killed by police 2 years ago

A selfie of Atatiana Jefferson, a young Black woman. She sits in a car, looking off to the side.
Jefferson's family via Associated press
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Tuesday marks two years since a Fort Worth police officer shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson in her own home.

Jefferson, who was 28 years old, was added to the long list of Black Americans killed by police. She died less than a year before the murder of George Floyd and the wave of protests against police violence that followed.

Aaron Dean, the now-former officer charged with murder in Jefferson’s death, will face trial in November.

Jefferson’s family and supporters say they want a conviction. As people gathered to honor Jefferson this past Saturday, they told KERA what they remember from Oct. 12, 2019, and how the case affects them today.

These conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.

James Smith, The Neighbor Who Called The Police

James Smith stands holding a sign that says "WE WANT JUSTICE!!! #sayhername Atatiana Jefferson."
Miranda Suarez
James Smith, Atatiana Jefferson's neighbor, marched holding this banner in the first Tay Day Parade on Oct. 9, 2021.

James Smith called a non-emergency line early on Oct. 12, 2019, asking for someone to check on his neighbor Atatiana Jefferson’s house. That intended welfare check ended in Jefferson’s death, and Smith has since been involved in efforts to memorialize her.

What are your memories from the time around when Jefferson was killed?

I'm stuck in 2019. I have not moved past that day, and I probably won't move past that day until there is closure. I don't know what that's going to be.

What has it meant for you to be able to participate in events like this and be present in these efforts to remember her?

It's my civic duty, but it's a human duty to make sure that someone is not forgotten, especially if they lose their life needlessly.

What do you hope to see result from the upcoming murder trial? 

Well, in America, you really can't pre-think an answer to that. We have to get it when we get it. Either way, it's going to bring closure.

Camilla Gallegos, Founder of Community Organization Struggle Rydaz

Camilla Gallegos, wearing a white t-shirt for her organization Struggle Rydaz, poses for a photo on a sunny day with fellow Struggle Rydaz leader Whitney Johnson,
Miranda Suarez
Camilla Gallegos, left, and Whitney Johnson both participated in the Tay Day Parade, memorializing the life of Atatiana Jefferson, on Oct. 9 2021.

Gallegos, founder of Struggle Rydaz, said she hopes Aaron Dean serves time for killing Jefferson. “That's the real justice,” she said. “He did wrong, he messed up. Own up to what you did and accept your consequence.” 

How did the killing of Atatiana Jefferson affect you? Why is this event something that gets you out in the streets? 

I live in the neighborhood. I have a daughter. I have kids. That was wrong. It affected me because that's our sister. We all bleed blood. And it was wrong. She didn't do anything to deserve that.

But also, I'm infuriated that there hasn't been any justice. None. So that's really what riled us all up here today.

I've heard so much about the long wait even to get a trial date. Do you feel that same frustration?

Yes. Absolutely.

How do you feel like Fort Worth has changed — or not changed — since this happened? 

Fort Worth has not changed. They are doing the same thing that they've done with other cases in the past. They drag their feet. They're taking their time and not giving her due diligence.

Lee Merritt, Attorney for Jefferson’s Family & Candidate for Texas Attorney General

Lee Merritt poses for a portrait on a downtown street with construction equipment behind him. He's wearing a gray pinstripe suit and a mask with his campaign logo in his race for Texas attorney general.
Miranda Suarez
Lee Merritt, a candidate for Texas attorney general and lawyer for Atatiana Jefferson's family, acknowledged during the Tay Day Parade that convictions in police shootings are rare.

Merritt said Atatiana Jefferson had been at home taking care of her mother, Yolanda Carr, who was ill at the time. Carr died a few months after her daughter in January 2020.

What do you remember from two years ago? Can you talk a little bit about what that time was like?

It's a good time to remember Atatiana's mom. She was brokenhearted about the death of her daughter. Atatiana was home taking care of her mother, and the reason the neighbor called was because her mother was ill, and he was concerned that maybe she had a medical emergency.

Although her health was beginning to wane, she really wanted to see the nation know her daughter's name. She wanted to see justice for her daughter. I am grateful that there was a criminal indictment at the time prior to [her death].

There was a lot of attention, a lot of energy around policing at the time. I'm grateful that the conversation continues, and that Atatiana still remains at the center of it. This was before George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery, or just 2020 in general. The country has changed a lot, and I believe that Atatiana's case was one of the tipping points.

Looking ahead to Aaron Dean’s murder trial, what are you hoping to see happen?

We're hoping to see a rigorous prosecution that will result in an appropriate conviction and sentencing. I don't think Aaron Dean should ever be free again. Aatiana will never be reunited with her family. They have to live with that loss as long as they live.

Chris Nettles, Fort Worth City Council Member

Chris Nettles, a Black man with long hair, walks among a group of community activists in the middle of a downtown street.
Miranda Suarez
Chris Nettles, second from right, walks in the Tay Day Parade on Oct. 9, 2021. He's a new City Council member, and he talked about Atatiana Jefferson's case during his swearing-in speech.

On Tuesday, Nettles is scheduled to present Jefferson’s family with a proclamation declaring Oct. 12 as Tay Day. Tay was Jefferson’s nickname.

What do you remember from two years ago when you first heard about what happened to Atatiana?

That the city of Fort Worth was turned upside down. I mean, we had people from all over Fort Worth at her location, mourning and asking for answers and justice and questions. So today [it seems] a little different. [People are] excited, happy. I mean, we're still mourning her loss, but it's some type of joy that's happening.

Cedric Carr, Jefferson’s Uncle

Cedric Carr, standing on a downtown sidewalk with tall buildings in the distance, wears a shirt with Atatiana Jefferson's face on it. He holds up a homemade sign covered in photos of his niece.
Miranda Suarez
Cedric Carr is Atatiana Jefferson's uncle. At the Tay Day Parade, he said it has been a hard two years, waiting for some closure in his niece's death.

Cedric Carr said he remembers his niece as a wonderful, down-to-earth person with dreams of going into medicine. Waiting for the trial as it faced delays has been difficult for him and other family members.

A year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now, regardless of the result of the trial, what do you hope your niece’s legacy is?

You still want justice, and that’s something you still have to pursue. Whether it's a guilty verdict or a not guilty verdict, you still have to pursue it, because if you don't pursue it, it's going to continue to happen again and again.

I remember watching so many interview shows, documentaries, and so many special interest shows, where someone lost a loved one because of this kind of brutality. Now it hits me. I'm a victim. It hits my heart. Now I'm seeing reality, and that is a shock, because like, oh my God, it's me. It's our family now.

So pray that you never have to go through this. And it's also the reason why you have to fight to make sure you don't have to go through this.

Just remember Atatiana here. Remember George Floyd. Remember them. Remember all those cases, and fight along with the community.

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

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