After the state rested its case in the Aaron Dean murder trial Wednesday afternoon following two-and-a-half days of testimony, some experts and community observers questioned whether that was sufficient time to make a case against Dean for shooting Atatiana Jefferson in her home in 2019.
Cory Session, the vice president of the Innocence Project of Texas, an organization that provides free legal services to people who have been wrongly incarcerated for crimes, called the prosecutors out for failing to “zealously” prosecute the case against the former Fort Worth police officer .
“I don’t think anyone expected … the prosecution to rest after three days,” Session said. “This … makes me think, ‘Are you trying your best to handle him with kid gloves?’”
Anthony Lazon, the founder of the social justice organization Dallas for Change, sat in the courtroom every day of the trial, which began Dec. 5 in Tarrant County’s 396th District Court.
“I don’t think the prosecutor, the state did enough to humanize Atatiana,” Lazon said.
Prosecutors showed the jury a few photos of Jefferson during the ashes 10 minutes of testimony by his sister Ashley Carr on Wednesday. Carr’s testimony was cut short after the defense objected to the prosecution’s line of personal questions and the judge told the prosecutor to move on.
Lazon mentioned the large portrait of Botham Jean that was displayed during the entire trial of Amber Guyger, the former Dallas police officer who was convicted of murder in 2019 for fatally shooting Jean in his apartment.
Lazon also said he was disappointed the prosecutors didn’t continue their case Thursday and Friday.
“We had the ball in our court,” Lazon said, adding that time was not used to give the defense more time to prepare its arguments.
The trial will resume Monday, when defense witnesses are available to start testing.
Benson Varghese, a criminal defense attorney based in Fort Worth who is not involved in the case, said it’s possible that the prosecution wanted to go into other things.
“What we don’t know is what’s happening behind the scenes,” he said. “Has the state tried to get into certain things that the judge did not allow, for example? That’s just speculation. We don’t know those things. But the reason it is a point of speculation is it was a truncated presentation from every outsider’s objective opinion.”
Varghese said the prosecution could have presented Jefferson to the jury in a more compelling way.
“If you’re the prosecutors, you know the nationwide attention in this case, you should have thought of every question possible to get out the most compelling information and get it in front of that jury and let it really resonate,” he said. “And I think that’s what the community is saying they feel like was not presented.”
The defense is trying to prove Dean saw Jefferson point a handgun at him through his bedroom window and that he shot him in self-defense. Prosecutors have said they don’t believe Dean ever saw the gun.
Dean and another officer were searching the back yard about 2:30 am after a neighbor called about open doors at the house on East Allen Avenue on Oct. 12, 2019. The other officer, Carol Darch, tested they thought the home might have been burglarized.
Jefferson’s nephew Zion Carr tested that his aunt heard noises in the yard, grabbed her handgun from her purse and looked out the window. Dean’s body-camera video shows that he shouted at Jefferson to put his hands up and then he immediately fired one round through the window, shooting him in the chest. Prosecutors have said Dean did not identify himself as an officer, never said he saw a gun and did not attempt any first aid to try to save Jefferson’s life.
When the trial resumes Monday, Varghese said, he expects the defense to work on building the case of self-defense. He anticipates the state might be holding back some witnesses, like a use-of-force expert, for rebuttal testimony after the defense has had an opportunity to make its case.
“The state could be playing the hand that they’re dealt with by saying let’s wait and see what the defense does, so that we can respond to that very specific issue of self-defense,” Varghese said. “So that’s where I expect this trial is going to go.”
Dean was indicted on a charge of murder, but Varghese said manslaughter is also an option the jury will likely consider. Manslaughter is a crime in which the defendant caused a person’s death by acting recklessly, and it carries a prison sentence between two and 20 years.
If convicted of murder, Dean could spend anywhere from five years to life in prison.
Varghese said it was interesting that the prosecution spent so much time talking about manslaughter to the jury during the jury selection process.
“I think there is not only a chance but a likelihood that the jury will be given that question and asked to deliberate on whether he’s guilty of only a lesser offense,” Varghese said.
Taly Haffar, a criminal defense lawyer in Dallas, thinks it’s probable Dean will testify in his own defense this week.
“(The defense is) going to do all they can to show that he truly felt that his life and his partner’s life were in danger,” Haffar said. “It’s going to be a pretty powerful testimony because it’s got to be from him. I mean, there’s no one else who’s going to be able to paint that picture and describe what he was feeling.”
Haffar also said that the prosecution starting its case with Jefferson’s nephew Zion and ending it with his sister Ashley Carr was impactful. Zion, then 8 years old, was playing video games with his aunt and was the only witness inside the house when she was killed.
According to Haffar, there is a common perception that in homicide cases there should be a lot of focus on the victim, but character witnesses don’t play a key role until the sentencing phase of the trial.
“The jury is supposed to decide whether or not this action occurred based on the evidence and not based on the personality traits of any given individual,” he said.
Session said there were several other witnesses who should have been called, including one of Dean’s training officers who wrote in a report in 2018 that Dean was inclined to “tunnel vision.”
Dean is the first police officer in Tarrant County to go on trial accused of a murder committed while on-duty, and Session said he lacks experience in prosecuting cases like this shows. Former Arlington police officer Ravinder Singh was found not guilty of criminally negligent homicide earlier this year in the 2019 death of Margarita Brooks, who the officer shot while firing at her dog.
“There’s a pattern that prosecutors typically follow when they’re prosecuting a police officer … for killing someone. And this is not being followed,” Session said.
According to Session, the prosecutors should have researched other cases where the state has prosecuted a police officer and followed the patterns of trials in counties like Dallas, where there have been multiple expert witnesses and character witnesses for the victim.
The attorneys involved in the Dean case are not allowed to talk to the media during the trial because of a gag order.
“Prosecution rested,” Session said. “But if there’s a not guilty verdict in this case, there will be unrest in Fort Worth, I promise you that, and it will be the prosecution’s fault.”