Aaron Dean, a former Fort Worth police officer who was convicted of manslaughter last week for shooting 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson through her bedroom window in 2019, was sentenced yesterday to nearly 12 years in prison. The case is a rare example of a situation in which a cop was not only charged but successfully prosecuted for the wrongful use of deadly force. As such, it suggests the sort of circumstances that are necessary to achieve that outcome.
Around 2:20 a.m. on Saturday, October 12, 2019, Fort Worth police received a "welfare call" on a non-emergency line from one of Jefferson's neighbors, who was concerned that the front door to Jefferson's house was open. Jefferson, who was playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew that night, had opened the door to dissipate smoke from burned hamburgers. The dispatcher described the call as an "open structure" report, which could indicate a burglary. Dean and his partner took the call.
Body camera video showed that Dean, who was holding a flashlight, approached the house through the backyard but did not announce his presence. The noises Dean made alarmed Jefferson, who retrieved a handgun from her purse and looked out at the yard through her rear-facing bedroom window. "Put your hands up!" Dean barked when he saw Jefferson. "Show me your hands!" He still did not identify himself as a police officer. Within a few seconds, he fired the shot that killed Jefferson.
Dean resigned from the Forth Worth Police Department that Monday, hours before Chief Ed Kraus said he had planned to fire him for violating policies regarding de-escalation, the use of force, and professional conduct. Dean was arrested the same day on a murder charge. Two months later, a Tarrant County grand jury approved a murder indictment. Dean's trial, which was delayed by pandemic-related backlogs, began on December 5.
The murder charge required the prosecution to prove that Dean "intentionally and knowingly" caused Jefferson's death, that he intended to "cause serious bodily injury" and committed "an act clearly dangerous to human life" that caused Jefferson's death, or that he killed her while committing or attempting to commit a different felony. District Court Judge George Gallagher instructed the jurors that they also could consider the lesser included charge of manslaughter, which entails recklessly causing someone's death. Murder is a first-degree felony punishable by a prison term of five years to life, while manslaughter is a second-degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison.
During the trial, Dean testified that he thought he was confronting a burglar. Through the bedroom window, he said, he saw the silhouette of an adult whose "upper arms were reaching for something or grasping something." Since "I thought we had a burglar," he explained, "I stepped back, straightened up and drew my weapon and then pointed it towards the figure. I couldn't see that person's hands." Hence the orders that he shouted.
"I needed to see that person's hands, because the hands carry weapons, the hands are the threat to us," Dean testified. "As I started to get that second phrase out, 'Show me your hands,' I saw the silhouette…I was looking right down the barrel of a gun. When I saw the barrel of that gun pointed at me, I fired a single shot from my duty weapon." Although he conceded that he could have done better that night, he gave his performance a B grade, saying, "I did a fine job."
The prosecution unsurprisingly disagreed. While cross-examining Dean, Assistant District Attorney Dale Smith noted that the defendant did not knock on the door, did not identify himself as a police officer, and did not call for backup even though he supposedly thought he was interrupting a burglary. Smith also pointed out that Dean and his partner did not guard the exits to prevent the hypothetical intruder from escaping. "Is that good police work?" Smith repeatedly asked.
The jurors clearly thought it was not, although the fact that they settled on manslaughter rather than murder suggests that they cut Dean some slack in light of the danger he thought he was facing, even though he was responsible for creating that situation. The fact that Dean flagrantly violated protocol in several ways made it hard for him to make the case that Jefferson's death was simply an unfortunate mistake rather than a criminal homicide.
At the same time, Jefferson's response to noises on her property in the middle night seemed perfectly reasonable. By arming herself before investigating what was happening in the backyard, she did what many Texas gun owners, possibly including the jurors themselves, would have done in the same circumstances. This was not a case in which police were dealing with a potentially dangerous criminal suspect. It was a case in which an innocent woman was killed for exercising her constitutional right to armed self-defense in her own home.
The jury picked the sentence of 11 years, 10 months, and 12 days, which is shorter than the maximum but much more severe than the probation that the defense requested. Dean will have to serve at least half of the sentence before he is eligible for parole.
"This verdict and sentence won't bring Atatiana Jefferson back," Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson said yesterday. "This trial was difficult for all involved, including our community. My sympathies remain with Atatiana's family and friends and I pray they find peace." Although Dean is white and Jefferson was black, Wilson added, "this trial wasn't about politics and it wasn't about race. If someone breaks the law, they have to be held accountable. The jury agreed."
When police unnecessarily use deadly force against someone who is perceived as less innocent, by contrast, jurors often are willing to overlook even egregious abuses. If an officer claims he was afraid for his life, jurors do not necessarily ask whether that fear was reasonable in the circumstances.
In 2016, for example, a South Carolina jury deadlocked on the question of whether Michael Slager, a North Charleston police officer, had committed any crime at all when he shot motorist Walter Scott in the back as he ran away following a routine traffic stop. Scott, who seems to have fled because he had an outstanding warrant for failure to pay child support, briefly struggled with Slager after the officer drew his Taser but posed no threat when Slager killed him. Slager later pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges.
In 2017, after St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop, a jury acquitted him of manslaughter. Dashcam video released after the trial showed that Yanez panicked after Castile, who had a license to carry a concealed weapon, calmly informed him that he had a handgun. Yanez, who shot Castile seconds later, said he thought Castile was about to draw the weapon. But the evidence indicated that Castile actually was reaching for the driver's license that Yanez had asked to see and that the gun remained in his pocket throughout the encounter. Yanez never clearly instructed Castile to show his hands or stop moving, instead telling him not to reach for the gun, which Castile repeatedly said he was not doing.
Also in 2017, an Arizona jury acquitted Mesa police officer Philip Brailsford of homicide after he shot and killed Daniel Shaver in a hotel hallway. Shaver, who was drunk, had alarmed other guests at the hotel by pointing a pellet gun out the window of his room while showing it off to acquaintances. But when Brailsford shot him, Shaver was apologetic, weeping, and crawling down the hallway per police instructions. Brailsford said Shaver frightened him by reaching for his waistband, which he apparently did in an effort to pull up his shorts. But none of the other officers at the scene, who had guns trained on Shaver, thought he posed a deadly threat. Last month, the city of Mesa reached an $8 million settlement with Shaver's widow.
Aaron Dean's conviction and sentence show that cops can be held accountable when they kill someone for no good reason. But the counterexamples suggest that many jurors are inclined to accept almost any excuse that highlights the hazards of the job, even when those hazards are imaginary.