Defense attorneys dropped their case Tuesday in the murder trial of former Fort Worth Police Officer Aaron Dean, who fatally shot a black woman at her mother’s home more than three years ago.
Dean, 38, killed Atatiana Jefferson in the early hours of October 12, 2019 while answering a phone call. A concerned neighbor called a non-emergency police line at around 2:30 a.m. because the doors of the house were open and the lights were on inside.
Jefferson, 28, was playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew when she heard a noise in the backyard and armed herself. The doors were open, her nephew said, because they were burning hamburgers and letting out the smoke. According to witnesses, Dean and a co-worker did not report when they arrived at the East Fort Worth home or walked around the home, through a gate, and into the backyard. Dean shot into her bedroom through a window.
Prosecutors called a refuting expert to testify on Tuesday afternoon. They dropped their case after three days last week and did not call a use of force expert to determine if Dean’s deadly force was warranted. A key issue for the Tarrant County jury is whether Dean, who is white, saw Jefferson’s gun before firing the fatal shot.
Defense attorneys called three witnesses over two days, including Dean. The former officer commented on his defense for about four hours on Monday.
Jay Coons, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University, testified Tuesday morning as an expert on the use of force for defense. He said Dean’s behavior as a police officer was reasonable. Coons told jurors the officers “didn’t know what they had” other than an open door. He later implied when questioned by District Attorney Dale Smith that he did not believe Dean had committed a crime in killing Jefferson.
“Police officers are trained that if a gun is pointed at you, you shoot at that person, you are in extreme danger, you run the risk of being shot,” Coons said. “In terms of training, in terms of your potential as a human being, it comes down to a decision – just a decision.”
Adarius and Ashley Carr, Jefferson’s siblings, passed notes while Coons testified. One of Jefferson’s relatives read from a daily devotional. Dean wrote feverishly as Coons stood up and gave a demo to the jury.
Dean said on the witness stand Monday that he saw Jefferson’s gun through the window. In opening statements, his attorneys said he saw a green laser on their gun; Dean didn’t testify. His attorneys said Dean followed his training to meet deadly force with deadly force.
Smith pressed Coons for testimony he gave in a 2018 Dallas County case. Coons said when he testified in the case, it took between 1.3 and 1.5 seconds for an officer to make a decision and then act.
A video forensic evidence expert testified Monday that it was only about half a second before Dean began shouting orders at Jefferson before he pulled the trigger. Smith argued that given Coons’ previous statement, Jefferson would not have had enough time to react before the fatal shot was fired.
Dean and his partner said they believe the home on the 1200 block of East Allen Avenue was broken into. Dean said on the witness stand Monday the house looked ransacked and items were strewn about the kitchen and living room. Dean and his partner testified they did not identify themselves if a burglar was inside and said department policy did not require them to announce their presence on an “open structure” call.
However, Coons testified under questioning from prosecutors that the department’s policy on open structure calls does not direct officers not to report. He said it’s implied if officials believe something shameful is happening. Coons said the mere presence of an officer in police uniform was a form of announcement.
Smith berated Dean Monday about whether his actions were “good police work.” Dean conceded “there are probably things I could have done better” but said he thinks he did a “good job”.
Jefferson’s nephew, Zion Carr, told a children’s forensic interviewer on the morning of the shooting that Jefferson pointed a gun at the window. But on the stand last week, the now 11-year-old said she kept the gun by her side. Zion also told the interviewer he heard someone yelling outside the window and thought he saw a police badge. But in the stands, Zion said he didn’t hear or see anything outside. Defense attorneys later implied to the judge that they believe Zion was trained to give a different account of the shooting.
When questioned by prosecutors Monday, Dean said Jefferson was bent over and standing upright when he drew his gun. He said her gun was near her chest.
Dean’s killing of Jefferson sparked national outrage and became a turning point in the wake of widespread social justice protests in 2020. Although some of the 12 jurors and two alternates are black, none are black.
Dean faces life imprisonment if convicted of murder. Prior to Dean’s arrest, no Tarrant County officer had ever been charged with murder, prosecutors said at the time.
Described by family as a doting aunt and aspiring doctor, Jefferson grew up in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas and graduated from Xavier University of Louisiana. She had moved into the home on East Allen Avenue to care for her ailing mother and Zion, whose mother was also in poor health.