FORT WORTH, Texas – A white former police officer went on trial Monday for fatally shooting a Black woman through a rear window of her Texas home in a case that has faced years of delays.
Fort Worth officer Aaron Dean quit and was charged with murder two days after killing 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson while responding to a call about an open front door in October 2019. Jefferson had been playing video games with her then-8-year-old nephew, who later told authorities his aunt pulled out a gun after hearing suspicious noises behind the house. Body-camera footage showed Dean didn’t identify himself as police.
At the time, the case was unusual for the relative speed with which, amid public outrage, the Fort Worth Police Department released the video and arrested Dean. Since then, his case has been repeatedly postponed amid lawyerly wrangling, the terminal illness of his lead attorney and the COVID-19 pandemic.
By contrast, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin went on trial and was convicted of murdering George Floyd more than 1 1/2 years ago. Floyd was killed seven months after Jefferson, in a case that sparked global protests over racial injustice.
Dean, who has pleaded not guilty, has been free on $200,000 bond. Now 38, he is charged with killing Jefferson on Oct. 12, 2019, after a neighbor called a nonemergency police line to report that the front door to Jefferson’s home was open.
Bodycam video showed Dean approaching the door of the home where Jefferson was caring for her nephew. He then walked around the side of the house, pushed through a gate into the fenced-off backyard and fired through the glass a split-second after shouting at Jefferson, who was inside, to show her hands.
Assistant District Attorney Ashlea Deener said during opening statements Monday that Jefferson believed Dean and a fellow officer accompanying him were intruders. Dean opened fire without giving her time to comply with commands and without ever saying he saw a gun, Deener said, adding “the evidence will support, he did not see the gun in her hands.”
The home’s front and side doors were open to vent smoke from hamburgers Jefferson was cooking with her nephew Zion, according to Deener, who said the boy would testify.
Defense attorney Miles Brissette countered that the officers were following protocol in treating the call as a potential burglary. He said the “living room looked like it’s been ransacked” and they were looking for signs of forced entry.
Before opening fire, Brissette said, Dean saw a silhouette in the window of a person with a gun and a green laser sight pointed at him. He said the evidence would show the officer’s actions were reasonable.
“That gun was relevant,” Brissette said. “This is a tragic accident.”
Jefferson was considering a career in medicine and moved into her mother’s home months before the shooting there to help as the older woman’s health declined.
Her killing shattered the trust police had been trying to build with communities of color in Fort Worth, a city of 935,000 about 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Dallas that has long had complaints of racially unequal policing and excessive force.
The shooting drew swift rebuke from the city’s then-police chief and Republican mayor, who at the time called the circumstances “truly unthinkable” and said Jefferson having a gun was “irrelevant.”
Dean’s legal team used those comments in unsuccessful attempts to move the case from Fort Worth, claiming news media attention and statements from public officials would bias the jury pool. District Judge George Gallagher rejected their request again Monday before the jury entered the overflowing courtroom.
As jury selection was set to start last week, Dean’s defense attorney, Jim Lane, died. After years of delays, Gallagher moved forward anyway and, following days of questioning potential jurors, a panel of 12 jurors and two alternates was selected Friday. Eight were men, six women and none of them appeared to be Black.
The opening day of Dean’s trial is set to end early so participants can attend Lane’s funeral.
Associated Press reporter Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.
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