FORT WORTH, Texas (CN) — On the first day of his murder trial, attorneys for white former Fort Worth cop Aaron Dean told jurors Monday that his fatal shooting of Black homeowner Atatiana Jefferson through her window during a welfare check was a “tragic accident."
Dean, 38, of Arlington, has remained free on a $200,000 bond after he was indicted for killing Jefferson on Oct. 12, 2019. A neighbor had called a nonemergency police phone number that night requesting a welfare check after Jefferson’s front door was left open.
In a heavily edited two-minute body camera video released by police, Dean is shown walking up to the open front door, then walking down the side of the home before suddenly yelling “put your hands up, show me your hands!” and immediately firing his service weapon inside. Dean is not shown identifying himself as police at any time.
Assistant Tarrant County District Attorney Ashlea Deener told jurors during her opening statement that “this is not a case of self-defense, this was murder.” She lamented that “your home is the one place on this earth you should feel safe and protected.”
Defense attorney Miles Brissette, with Gill Brissette in Fort Worth, told jurors that Dean did not identify himself as police due to Fort Worth police having a standing order to treat open structure calls as a silent alarm. Dean’s defense is expected to target discrepancies between the initial call to police for a nonemergency welfare call and Dean possibly being told it was an open structure call. Brissette said Dean and his partner remained quiet after looking into the living room and seeing “a mess,” indicating there may be a burglary in progress.
Brissette said his client looked inside the window and saw a figure holding a gun with a green laser that shined onto him and his partner nearby, resulting in his decision to fire in self-defense.
"That gun was relevant," the attorney said. "This is a tragic accident."
Zion Carr, 11, was the first witness called by prosecutors. He was 8 years old when he was playing video games with his aunt in a bedroom before she was shot. Wearing a dark suit and looking down, Carr said during direct examination that the shooting was like “being in a dream.”
Tarrant County District Judge George Gallagher called a brief recess during cross-examination after Carr appeared visibly overwhelmed. The judge then sent out the jury and questioned an unidentified woman sitting near the Carr family in the gallery who he claimed was making hand gestures at Carr during his testimony. The judge reminded her that she is a potential witness and sent her out of the courtroom.
“There will be no coaching of witnesses in this courtroom,” Gallagher said.
Jurors were not present when attorneys for both sides discussed discrepancies between Carr’s testimony Monday and what he told investigators immediately after the shooting about how Jefferson was holding the gun. He initially told investigators Jefferson grabbed the gun from her purse before looking out the window. He showed the courtroom Monday how Jefferson held the gun up at her hip as she was near the window.
Court was adjourned before noon to accommodate the funeral for Dean’s lead defense attorney Jim Lane, 78, who died on the eve of jury selection last week.
Dean’s murder trial has been delayed at least five times since it was tentatively scheduled to begin in August 2020. In-person court proceedings were delayed repeatedly due to the Covid-19 pandemic and there was a change in judges after defense attorneys argued Gallagher's predecessor showed bias against them.
The trial faced heavy criticism last week due to no Black jurors being selected out of a pool of over 200 potential jurors.
Dean was first hired by Fort Worth in August 2017 and commissioned eight months later. He refused to cooperate with separate administrative and criminal investigations into the killing and resigned. Former police chief Ed Kraus said immediately after the killing that he was going to fire Dean before he quit.
Before opening statements began Monday, Gallagher dismissed the defense’s renewed motion for change of venue. The defense has repeatedly claimed it is not possible for Dean to receive a fair trial in Tarrant County due to media coverage of the shooting and cited statements made by city officials against their client. Former Mayor Betsy Price said in the immediate aftermath of the killing there was “no justification” for the “senseless” shooting.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.