The former Fort Worth police officer who fatally shot 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson in her own home in 2019 did not see her hold a gun for a split second before shooting at her through a rear 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 his partner,” Tarrant County prosecutor Ashlea Deener said. “Evidence will support that he did not see the gun in her hand. This is not justification. This is not a case of self-defense. This is murder.”
Still, former officer Aaron Dean’s attorney said he saw an armed silhouette pointing a green laser at him and later found a firearm next to her body.
“In that window he sees a silhouette,” said attorney Miles Brissette. “He doesn’t know if it’s a man or a woman, he doesn’t know the racial makeup of the silhouette. He sees it, he sees the green laser and gun coming towards him. He takes a half step back, gives a command and fires his weapon.”
The contrasting opening statements come at the start of a process that will address fraught issues such as race, police brutality, gun rights and body camera images.
Dean, who is white, has pleaded not guilty to murder for killing Jefferson, who is black, after shooting in her home in October 2019 in front of her young nephew. The charge carries a possible sentence of 5 to 99 years.
Jury selection ended Friday. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, eight men and six women were chosen.
Judge George Gallagher has issued a gag order for the trial, which is expected to last two weeks.
Opening statements are scheduled during an abbreviated court day on Monday so people can attend the funeral of lead attorney Jim Lane, who died suddenly in late November.
Police responded to the Jefferson home around 2:25 a.m. on October 12, 2019, after a neighbor reported her doors open in the middle of the night. The neighbor called a non-emergency police number to request a security check at Jefferson’s home.
Deener, the district attorney, emphasized that Dean and his partner did not identify themselves as police at any point when they searched Jefferson’s house. Jefferson pulled 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 as a possible robbery and not, as previously reported, as a welfare check, so they did not announce their presence. He described the shooting as a “tragic accident”, but one that was “fair” for a person in Dean’s position.
Heavily edited body camera footage showed an officer peering through two open doors, but he did not knock or announce his presence. Instead, he walked around the house for about a minute.
Finally, the officer approached a window and shone 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. He did not identify himself as a police officer every point in the video.
In the video, the glare of the officer’s flashlight makes it difficult to see anyone through the window.
Jefferson was pronounced dead minutes later.
Her cousin would later tell an investigator that after hearing noises outside, his aunt took a gun from her purse and pointed it at the window, police said.
The shooting was widely condemned, with the National Black Police Association saying in a statement that killings of black civilians by white officers had “reached a critical mass”.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said at the time that Jefferson’s murder was unjustified and “unacceptable.”
Police initially said the officer fired his gun after “noticing threat.” Officers provided medical care after the shooting, police said.
Police said officers found a firearm when they entered the room where Jefferson died. Video released by police showed two largely blurry clips, which appeared to show a firearm inside the home.
Dean, 34 at the time of the shooting, was hired in August 2017 and appointed 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 charged in December 2019.
The day after Dean’s arrest, Lane told CNN his client “regrets and his family is in shock.”
According to a lawyer for Jefferson’s family, Jefferson was trying to protect her nephew from what they both thought was a prowler.
She had moved to her ailing mother’s home in Fort Worth a few months earlier to care for her, attorney S. Lee Merritt said at the time. She also took care of her nephews.
The night of the shooting, Jefferson stayed up late playing video games with her nephew. They played Call of Duty into the wee hours and left the door open to enjoy the fresh fall air after weeks of scorching heat, Merritt said.
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 hailed as a loving, caring and reliable aunt who has achieved many things in life.
Her cousin, Zion Carr, who witnessed the shooting, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, Merritt said. Since her death, relatives said they had difficulty viewing videos of other police killings.
Jefferson’s father, Marquis Jefferson, went into cardiac arrest and died in November 2019, just weeks after Dean fatally shot his daughter. He was 59.
According to Merritt, Jefferson’s mother, Yolanda Carr, died in January 2020 at her home in Fort Worth after falling ill. Carr was ill and unable to attend her daughter’s funeral.
Instead, Rev. Jaime Kowlessar read a letter from Carr during the service.
“You often said you were going to change the world,” Carr wrote. “I think you still will.”