A former Texas officer who shot and killed a Black woman through a window in her home in October 2019 was found guilty of manslaughter Thursday.
Aaron Dean, a white Fort Worth police officer, fatally shot Atatiana Jefferson, 28, a Black woman who had been playing video games at home with her 8-year-old nephew. Dean was responding to Jefferson's home after a concerned neighbor called a nonemergency line around 2 a.m. to say he had noticed an open front door.
The jury, which could have found Dean guilty of murder, announced its verdict after having deliberated for about 13 hours. He faces two to 20 years in prison for the manslaughter conviction. The jury will decide Dean's sentence after it hears from prosecutors and Dean's defense team during the punishment phase.
"Today’s verdict provides a measure of justice, though it does not change the fact that a tragedy occurred that should have never happened," Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
"This tragedy for me has always been about Atatiana Jefferson — about her life as a daughter, sister, and aunt, and her lasting legacy," Parker said in the statement. "Many people in our community are hurting, and we must come together with compassion and grace. Our prayers are with the jury as they continue their service in the sentencing phase."
Tarrant County prosecutor Ashlea Deener said Wednesday during closing arguments that Jefferson acted reasonably and within her rights to protect herself and her nephew, Zion Carr, when she heard noises outside her home in the middle of the night and got hold of her gun, as she did not know police officers were at her residence.
"We have not seen one shred of evidence that anything that Atatiana did was unlawful. In fact, we heard quite the opposite," she said. "Atatiana Jefferson didn’t commit any criminal acts by walking up to the window with her gun, thinking someone was outside. It’s what many of us would do. That’s what you would expect us to do to try to protect ourselves and, in this case, Zion as well."
Bob Gill, a defense attorney for Dean, said that while Jefferson’s death was tragic, "a tragedy doesn’t always equal a crime" and the former officer was acting in self-defense when he shot Jefferson after he saw a gun in the window.
Gill said Jefferson had the right to protect herself and her home "up until the point that she pointed a firearm at a Fort Worth police officer."
Gill also said Dean’s testimony matched what Zion first told a child forensic interviewer shortly after the shooting: that his aunt pointed a gun at the window. During the trial, Zion testified instead that when his aunt was shot, her gun was still by her side.
Zion also said the front and side doors were open because they had accidentally burned hamburgers as they were making dinner. He also testified that Jefferson took out her gun, which she legally owned, because she heard noises outside the home and believed there could be an intruder.
Earlier in the trial, Dean took the stand in his own defense, saying he thought he was responding to the scene of a burglary and saw a figure in a window of Jefferson’s home.
“I thought we had a burglar, and so I stepped back, straightened up and drew my weapon and then pointed it towards the figure,” he said.
He said that he could not see the person’s hands and that he began shouting for Jefferson to put up her hands and then saw a gun.
“I’m just looking right down the barrel of the gun, and when I saw the barrel of that gun pointed at me, I fired a single shot from my duty weapon,” Dean said on the witness stand.
Prosecutors say evidence in the trial showed that Dean did not see a gun in Jefferson’s hands, as he claims. Prosecutors said Dean’s actions showed that he was unsure of what he saw in the window before he shot Jefferson and that evidence showed Jefferson was crouched down, not facing forward pointing a gun at Dean.
Prosecutor R. Dale Smith sought in his rebuttal Wednesday to cast doubt on Dean's testimony about seeing a gun before he shot Jefferson, saying that after Dean shot her, he continued to stand in front of the window and did not tell his partner when they entered the home that he had seen a weapon, “because he wasn’t sure what was on the other side of that window.”
“What officer would allow one of his partners to run into a house where they thought a burglary was happening without saying, ‘Hey, there’s a gun in there?’” Smith asked.
“He never said there was a gun, because he didn’t know,” he said.
Dean testified that after he shot Jefferson, he was briefly blinded by muzzle flash. “When my vision cleared,” he said, “then I observed the person that we now know is Miss Jefferson. I heard her scream and then saw her fall.”
During cross-examination, Smith questioned whether Dean had enough information and time to shoot into the home when only 1 minute, 17 seconds passed from when he turned on his camera and approached the house and shot Jefferson.
Dean also acknowledged that he did not announce himself as a police officer when he arrived, saying that he believed there was an active burglary at the scene and that it was “general practice” at the police department not to announce in such situations. He later admitted under questioning from Smith that he had made such announcements at at least one other burglary scene before then.
The prosecution raised the issue of whether Dean’s series of actions and choices that night amounted to “good police work,” with the former officer repeatedly answering, “No.”
Prosecutors have also argued that Dean shot Jefferson “not a second” after having shouted for her to put up her hands, without giving her time to process and follow his commands.
The prosecution and the defense also both called law enforcement experts to testify about whether Dean’s actions were reasonable, whether he should have announced himself and whether he could have taken other steps to prevent Jefferson's death.
The shooting in 2019 led to widespread criticism and prompted calls for police accountability and racial justice in law enforcement.
A Texas grand jury indicted Dean, who resigned from the police department before his arrest, in December 2019 on a murder charge.
Jefferson graduated from Xavier University in Louisiana with a degree in chemistry. She returned home after college to help her family with health issues and was planning to attend medical school.