The former Fort Worth police officer who fatally shot 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson in her own home in 2019 did not see her holding a gun in the split-second before firing at her through a back window, prosecutors said in opening statements of his murder trial Monday.
“This is not a circumstance where they’re staring at the barrel of a gun and he had to defend himself against that person or to protect his partner,” Tarrant County prosecutor Ashlea Deener said. “The evidence will support he did not see the gun in her hand. This is not a justification. This is not a self-defense case. This is murder.”
Yet the defense attorney for former officer Aaron Dean said he had seen an armed silhouette with a green laser pointed at him and later found a firearm lying next to Jefferson’s body.
“In that window he sees a silhouette,” attorney Miles Brissette said. “He doesn’t know if it’s a male or female, he doesn’t know the racial makeup of the silhouette. He sees it, he sees the green laser and the gun come up on him. He takes a half-step back, gives a command and fires his weapon.”
The contrasting opening statements come at the start of a trial which will feature fraught issues of race, police violence, gun rights and body-camera footage.
Dean, who is White, has pleaded not guilty to murder for killing Jefferson, who is Black, after firing into her home in October 2019 in front of her young nephew. The charge carries a possible sentence of 5 to 99 years.
The shooting took place after police responded to Jefferson’s house around 2:25 a.m. on October 12, 2019, in response to a neighbor reporting her doors were open in the middle of the night. The neighbor called a nonemergency police number to ask for a safety check at Jefferson’s house.
Deener, the prosecutor, emphasized Dean and his partner did not at any point identify themselves as police when scoping out Jefferson’s home. Jefferson took out her own gun because she heard noises outside and saw a flashlight in her backyard.
“She had no idea it was someone who was supposed to serve and protect,” Deener said.
Brissette, the defense attorney, said the officers were treating the situation like a potential robbery in progress and not, as has been previously reported, a welfare check, so they did not announce their presence. He described the shooting as a “tragic accident” but one that was “reasonable” for a person in Dean’s position.
Heavily edited body camera footage released to the public showed an officer peering through two open doors, but he didn’t knock or announce his presence. Instead, he walked around the house for about a minute. Eventually, the officer approached a window and shined a flashlight into what appeared to be a dark room.
“Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” the officer yelled before firing a single shot, according to the body camera footage.
11-year-old nephew testifies
The prosecution’s first witness was Zion Carr, who was 8 years old and in the bedroom with his “Aunt Tay” when she was shot.
Now 11, he testified they had accidentally burned hamburgers earlier in the night, so they opened the doors to air the smoke out of the house.
He and his aunt were up late playing video games when Jefferson heard a noise outside, and she then went to her purse to get her gun, he testified. He did not see her raise her firearm toward the window, he testified.
Zion said he did not hear or see anything outside the window, but he saw his aunt fall to the ground and start crying.
“I was thinking, ‘Is it a dream?’” he testified. “She was crying and just shaking.”
He was confused by what happened and only later learned his aunt had been killed. “I was very upset,” he said.
Prosecutors noted to the court that some of his testimony was different from an earlier statement he had given to a police investigator. On cross-examination, Zion said he did not remember that earlier statement.
Zion suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, Merritt said.
The trial is expected to last about two weeks, and Judge George Gallagher has issued a gag order. Monday’s court day will be abbreviated so people can attend the funeral of lead defense attorney Jim Lane, who died suddenly in late November.
Shooting touches on race and police violence
The shooting was widely condemned, with the National Black Police Association saying in a statement the killings of Black citizens by White officers had “reached critical mass.”
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price at the time said Jefferson’s killing was unjustified and “unacceptable.”
Police initially said the officer fired his gun after “perceiving a threat.” Officers provided medical care after the shooting, according to police.
Police said officers found a firearm when they entered the room where Jefferson died. Video released by police showed two mostly blurred clips, which appeared to show a firearm inside the home.
Dean, 34 at the time of the shooting, was hired in August 2017 and commissioned as a licensed officer in April 2018, police said.
Two days after the shooting, Dean resigned from the police force and was arrested and charged with murder, the crime for which he was indicted in December 2019.
The day after Dean’s arrest, Lane told CNN his client “is sorry and his family is in shock.”
Jefferson was trying to protect her nephew from what they both thought was a prowler, according to an attorney for Jefferson’s family.
She had moved into her ailing mother’s Fort Worth home a few months earlier to take care of her, family attorney S. Lee Merritt said at the time. She also took care of her nephews.
Jefferson graduated from Xavier University of Louisiana in 2014 with a degree in biology and worked in pharmaceutical equipment sales, according to her family’s attorney.
The premed graduate, known as “Tay,” was eulogized as a loving, caring and dependable aunt who accomplished many things in life.
Since her death, family members said they have struggled to watch videos of other police killings.
Jefferson’s father, Marquis Jefferson, suffered cardiac arrest and died in November 2019, just weeks after Dean fatally shot his daughter. He was 59.
Jefferson’s mother, Yolanda Carr, died at her home in Fort Worth in January 2020 after becoming ill, according to Merritt. Carr had been ailing and couldn’t attend her daughter’s funeral.
Instead, the Rev. Jaime Kowlessar read a letter from Carr at the service.
“You often said you were going to change the world,” Carr wrote. “I think you still will.”