FORT WORTH, Texas -- Atatiana Jefferson was holding a gun but never raised it to point at the white police officer who fatally shot her through a rear window of her Texas home, the Black woman’s 11-year-old nephew testified at the officer’s murder trial Monday. Defense attorneys contended that the child said otherwise immediately after the shooting.
The child's testimony touched on an issue at the heart of the long-delayed case charging Aaron Dean with Jefferson's killing: whether the Fort Worth officer saw Jefferson's gun before he shot her.
Dean quit and was charged with murder two days after killing the 28-year-old while responding to a call about an open front door on Oct. 12, 2019.
Body-camera footage showed that neither Dean nor the other responding officer identified themselves as police at the house. Dean’s attorney, Miles Brissette, said the officer opened fire after seeing the silhouette of Jefferson with a gun in the window and a green laser sight pointed at him. Prosecutors told the jurors that the evidence would show otherwise.
That night, Jefferson was playing video games with her nephew, Zion Carr, who told a court Monday that his aunt pulled out a gun after hearing suspicious noises behind the house. Zion, then 8, said the gun was only ever pointed "down" but he acknowledged not remembering parts of what happened.
“She just held it next to her side, she just like, she didn’t point it up, she just kept it next to her,” he told prosecutors, who said the child previously said his aunt had pulled the gun up “a little bit.”
On cross-examination in the overflowing courtroom, Dean's defense said Zion told a specialized interviewer in a recorded session after the shooting that Jefferson had raised the gun. The child denied this.
In 2019, 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, it has been repeatedly postponed amid lawyerly wrangling, the terminal illness of Dean's 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 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 that Jefferson believed the officers were intruders. Dean opened fire without giving her time to comply with commands and never said 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 that Zion said he burned while cooking with Jefferson. The child later recalled his aunt falling to the floor, crying and shaking.
“I was thinking: Is it a dream?” he said.
At one point, District Judge George Gallagher stopped Zion's testimony and asked a woman to leave the courtroom, saying she’d been gesturing to the child.
Brissette argued that the officers were following protocol in treating the call as a potential burglary. He said they saw a living room that appeared to have been “ransacked" and circled the house looking for signs of forced entry. Brissette said evidence would show the officer’s actions were reasonable and the shooting was “a tragic accident.”
Jefferson's killing shattered the trust police had been trying to build with communities of color in Fort Worth, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Dallas. The city of 935,000 has long had complaints of racially unequal policing and excessive force.
The shooting drew swift rebuke from the then-police chief and Republican mayor, who at the time called the circumstances “unthinkable" and said Jefferson having a gun was “irrelevant.”
Dean's legal team used those comments repeatedly to try to move the case from Fort Worth, claiming the statements and news media attention would bias the jury pool.
Gallagher rejected their request again Monday before the jury of eight men and six women entered. The judge ended trial’s opening day before noon for the funeral of lawyer, Jim Lane, who had been Dean’s lead defense attorney.
Associated Press reporter Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.
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