The former Fort Worth police officer charged with murder for the 2019 shooting of 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson in her own home testified Monday he fired at her because she pointed a gun at him.
“As I started to get that second phrase out, ‘Show me your hands,’ I saw a silhouette,” the former officer, 38-year-old Aaron Dean, said. “I was looking right down the barrel of a gun, and when I saw the barrel of that gun pointed at me, I fired a single shot from my duty weapon.”
Dean said he had his weapon out because he believed the home was in the midst of being robbed. He fired at her through the window “because we’re taught to meet deadly force with deadly force. We’re not taught that we have to wait,” he said.
Yet in cross-examination, he admitted many of his actions that night were “bad police work,” including firing without seeing her hands or what was behind her, failing to tell his partner he saw a gun and rushing into the home without fully ensuring it was safe.
“You’ve got another fellow officer from the Fort Worth Police Department entering a home which you have determined to be a burglary in progress with a possible armed assailant, and you didn’t think to tell your partner, ‘Hey there’s a gun inside?’” prosecutor R. Dale Smith asked.
“No,” Dean said.
“You didn’t think to tell her, ‘Hey I saw somebody with a gun?’” Smith asked.
“No,” he said.
His testimony is likely to be pivotal in the trial, which began last week and has already featured body-camera footage of the shooting and testimony from the primary witnesses, Jefferson’s 11-year-old nephew and Dean’s police partner Carol Darch. The prosecution rested its case after three days of testimony.
The testimony comes more than three years after Dean and his partner responded to Jefferson’s house around 2:25 a.m. on an October night in response to a neighbor calling a nonemergency police line to note her doors were open.
The officers did not at any point identify themselves as police when scoping out the home, and Dean then shot into a back window at Jefferson, who was up late playing video games with her young nephew.
Heavily edited body camera footage released to the public showed an officer peering through two open doors, but he didn’t knock or announce his presence. Instead, he walked around the house for about a minute. Eventually, the officer approached a window and shined 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.
Dean, who is White, resigned days afterward and was arrested and charged with murder for killing Jefferson, who is Black. He has pleaded not guilty to murder, a charge which carries a possible sentence of five to 99 years.
His defense has said he fired in self-defense, but prosecutors argued there is no evidence he saw a gun in her hand before firing.
Former officer said he thought burglary was in progress
On Monday, Dean testified he and his partner arrived to the scene and approached the home quietly because they believed it was in the midst of a burglary. They parked at a nearby home and did not announce themselves as police when approaching.
When they were in the home’s backyard, Dean said he saw the silhouette of a person in the window. He thought the person was a burglar and shouted out commands for the person to show their hands. Dean said he could not identify the gender or race of the person in the window.
Dean described the silhouette as being “bent over” facing the window with upper arm movement.
He grew emotional on the stand as he spoke about the moments after he shot Jefferson.
“I observed the person that we now know is Ms. Jefferson. I heard her scream and saw her fall like this,” Dean said, gesturing in a downward motion. “And I knew that I’d shot that person.”
He said after firing the shot, he tried opening the window to render aid but couldn’t get it open, so they ran around to the front door and entered the home. He and Darch went into the bedroom and saw a child there.
“I’m thinking, who brings a kid to a burglary? What is going on?” Dean said.
He testified he found a firearm between Jefferson’s feet and noticed it had a green laser attached to it. Body-camera footage shows he audibly exhaled at that moment. “I was thinking that’s how close we came to dying,” he testified.
Dean admits he did not do good police work
In a confrontational cross-examination, Smith, the prosecutor, walked through each of Dean’s actions that night and repeatedly asked him, “Is that good police work?”
Dean acknowledged many of his actions were not. In particular, he acknowledged he could not tell whether the gun was raised in a position ready to fire, only that he saw the barrel of the gun and decided to shoot.
“Once you saw the barrel of the gun, you decided to pull the trigger and take who was on the other side of that window’s life?” the prosecutor said.
“Yes,” Dean said.
Smith went step-by-step through Dean’s body camera footage, showing multiple missteps Dean and his partner took while surrounding Jefferson’s home. Dean admitted he did not secure exits for a potential burglar and did not call for backup.
Still, he gave himself an overall grade of “B” on an A-to-F scale for his actions before he pulled the trigger.
“I’m sure there are things we could have done better,” he said.
He also did not administer CPR to Jefferson for a full minute after reaching her. Dean testified he held an item to Jefferson’s chest to try and stop the bleeding until medics arrived.
Further, he was asked if he intended to kill Jefferson when he fired at the window.
“I intended to stop the threat,” Dean said.
“And stopping the threat means … that they could die right?” Smith asked.
“It’s a possibility, yes,” Dean said.
How the trial has gone so far
In opening statements, prosecutors acknowledged Jefferson had a firearm but said there was no evidence Dean saw the weapon in her hand before firing at her.
“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 to protect his partner,” Tarrant County prosecutor Ashlea Deener said. “The evidence will support he did not see the gun in her hand. This is not a justification. This is not a self-defense case. This is murder.”
Yet Dean’s defense attorney said the former officer had seen an armed silhouette with a green laser pointed at him before firing.
“In that window he sees a silhouette,” attorney Miles Brissette said. “He doesn’t know if it’s a male or female, he doesn’t know the racial makeup of the silhouette. He sees it, he sees the green laser and the gun come up on him. He takes a half-step back, gives a command and fires his weapon.”
The prosecution’s first witness was Zion Carr, who was 8 years old and in the bedroom with his “Aunt Tay” when she was shot. Now 11, he testified they had accidentally burned hamburgers earlier in the night, so they opened the doors to air the smoke out of the house.
He and his aunt were up late playing video games when Jefferson heard a noise outside, and she then went to her purse to get her gun, he testified. He did not see her raise her firearm toward the window, he testified.
Zion said he did not hear or see anything outside the window, but he saw his aunt fall to the ground and start crying.
“I was thinking, ‘Is it a dream?’” he testified. “She was crying and just shaking.”
Prosecutors also called to the stand Dean’s police partner Carol Darch, who testified she was with Dean when they went to investigate the home.
She said she believed the home was being burglarized because two doors were open, lights were on inside, cabinets were wide open and things were strewn about the living room and kitchen area.
She had her back to the window when Dean began to yell out commands for Jefferson to put her hands up, she testified. Darch said she started to turn around, heard a gunshot, then looked over Dean’s shoulder and could see a face in the window with eyes “as big as saucers.”
She testified she did not see Jefferson holding a gun and doesn’t recall Dean ever saying Jefferson had a gun.
An attorney for Jefferson’s family said she was trying to protect her nephew from what they both thought was a prowler. She had moved into her ailing mother’s Fort Worth home a few months earlier to take care of her, family attorney S. Lee Merritt said at the time. She also took care of her nephews.
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.