By JAMIE STENGLE and JAKE BLEIBERG
A former Texas police officer was convicted of manslaughter Thursday for fatally shooting Atatiana Jefferson through a rear window of her home in 2019, a rare conviction of an officer for killing someone who was also armed with a gun.
Jurors were also considering a murder charge against Aaron Dean but instead convicted him of manslaughter. The conviction comes more than three years after the white Fort Worth officer shot the 28-year-old Black woman while responding to a call about an open front door.
Dean, 38, faces up to 20 years in prison on the manslaughter conviction. The sentencing phase of his trial is set to begin Friday. Dean had faced up to life in prison if convicted of murder.
The Tarrant County jury deliberated for more than 13 hours of deliberation over two days before returning the verdict. The primary dispute during the six days of testimony and arguments was whether Dean knew Jefferson was armed when he shot her. Dean testified that he saw her weapon; prosecutors alleged the evidence showed otherwise.
Lesa Pamplin, an attorney and friend of the Jefferson family, said she was glad that jurors took their time.
“These folks gave a good, hard look at the evidence and they didn’t rush it. And I’m happy, not pleased, but I’m happy that they got the manslaughter,” said Pamplin.
Another friend of the Jefferson family, Cliff Sparks, told The Dallas Morning News that he thinks the verdict will give other officers the message that they “can shoot and kill somebody in his own backyard and get the lesser charge.”
“It’s not right,” Sparks said. “None of this is right.”
Dean shot 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. She had been playing video games that night with her nephew and it emerged at trial that they left the doors open to vent smoke from hamburgers the boy burned.
The case was unusual for the relative speed with which, amid public outrage, the Fort Worth Police Department released video of the shooting and arrested Dean. He’d completed the police academy the year before and quit theo force without speaking to investigators.
Since then, the case had been repeatedly postponed amid lawyerly wrangling, the terminal illness of Dean’s lead attorney and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Body camera footage showed that Dean and a second officer who responded to the call didn’t identify themselves as police at the house. Dean and Officer Carol Darch testified that they thought the house might have been burglarized and quietly moved into the fenced-off backyard looking for signs of forced entry.
There, Dean, whose gun was drawn, fired a single shot through the window a split-second after shouting at Jefferson, who was inside, to show her hands.
Dean testified that he had no choice but to shoot when he saw Jefferson pointing the barrel of a gun directly at him. But under questioning from prosecutors he acknowledged numerous errors, repeatedly conceding that actions he took before and after the shooting were “more bad police work.”
Darch’s back was to the window when Dean shot, but she testified that he never mentioned seeing a gun before he pulled the trigger and didn’t say anything about the weapon as they rushed in to search the house.
Dean acknowledged on the witness stand that he only said something about the gun after seeing it on the floor inside the house and that he never gave Jefferson first aid.
Jefferson’s 8-year-old nephew, Zion Carr, was in the room with his aunt when she was shot. Zion testified that Jefferson took out her gun believing there was an intruder in the backyard, but he offered contradictory accounts of whether she pointed the pistol out the window.
On the trial’s opening day, the now-11-year-old Zion testified that Jefferson always had the gun pointed down, but in an interview that was recorded soon after the shooting and played in court, he said she had pointed the weapon at the window.