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Judge delays Aaron Dean trial until June. 'This case will be tried in Tarrant County'

Fort Worth Star-Telegram logoFort Worth Star-Telegram 5/4/2022 Kaley Johnson, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

May 4—A judge ruled Wednesday that the murder trial for the former Fort Worth police officer who shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson in 2019 will not be moved out of Tarrant County, but it will be delayed for another month.

The new trial date is June 23.

Judge David Hagerman ruled while media coverage has been pervasive and prejudicial, the coverage has not been inflammatory. The motion to relocate the trial, which Dean's attorneys filed in November, was denied.

"This case will be tried in Tarrant County," Hagerman ruled.

Defense attorneys Bob Gill and Miles Brissette, who are representing former officer Aaron Dean, asked the judge for a change of venue, arguing that pervasive media coverage has tainted potential jurors against Dean. Since Monday, the attorneys have presented at least 15 hours of media footage in court about the shooting and its aftermath.

On Wednesday afternoon, Gill also presented several news stories to the court that were published the day before about the hearing itself, including a Star-Telegram article that published Tuesday. He said the continued media coverage proved the defense's argument that Dean cannot receive a fair trial in Tarrant County. In order to prove a trial should be moved, the defense has to prove media coverage is pervasive, prejudicial and inflammatory.

Dale Smith, one of the prosecuting attorneys in the case, argued Wednesday afternoon that the defense failed to prove that publicity about the shooting would make a fair trial not possible in Tarrant County. As part of his argument, Smith read aloud from Gill's own book, in which Gill wrote widespread publicity by itself is not considered prejudicial.

According to Gill's book, Smith said, "the mere existence of media attention is not enough by itself for a change of venue." The prosecution also noted that the media coverage is available worldwide on the internet and that the case made headlines as a national story.

Gill pushed back, arguing that the media has broadcast inaccurate information and corrupted potential jurors by comparing Jefferson's death to Botham Jean's and Breonna Taylor's.

Gill said the media's coverage implies "there are a bunch of racist police officers running around Texas shooting African Americans." And, he said, it implies that Dean is one of those officers.

While Hagerman said the court "has no way to determine if one person saw this voluminous number of videos or a million people saw them," the "sheer volume" of the clips show the coverage of the shooting has been pervasive, the judge said.

In terms of coverage potentially prejudicing jurors, Hagerman agreed this was possible. Many of the videos shown in court, for example, included statements from former Mayor Betsy Price and former Police Chief Ed Kraus saying the shooting was "unjustified."

The media "chose to air mostly highly charged emotional statements," in the case, he said. Hagerman determined these statements and the coverage of them could prejudice potential jurors.

However, the media coverage was not inflammatory, he said.

For example, he said, while the body-camera footage of the shooting was shown dozens of times, journalists "never sought to interpret that footage or state guilt."

He also noted that Jefferson's family was interviewed and clips from a press conference were shown in media clips, but "Jefferson's family members never even said Aaron Dean's name."

Hagerman ruled on the change of venue motion at about 2:45 p.m. He also emphasized that a change of venue motion must be heard to ensure a defendant has a fair trial.

Dean, who is charged with murder in the October 2019 shooting, had been scheduled to appear before a jury on May 16, with jury selection beginning May 9. His lawyers filed a motion asking to delay the trial because their lead attorney on the case is ill. Attorneys successfully argued that motion later Wednesday afternoon.

Hagerman approved the motion for the trial's start date to be moved to June 23. He said jury selection could begin June 20, but the county's offices are closed on that date due to the Juneteenth holiday over the weekend, meaning the trial could be pushed further back.

After Hagerman read the ruling, he immediately left the courtroom. Smith stood up and said, "I've got no more business with this court today," and walked out.

In his statement to the court, Hagerman notes that the trial has already been significantly delayed and moving the start date is extremely burdensome. However, he said Dean's 6th Amendment right to be represented by the counsel of his choosing also had to be considered. He also noted the complexity of the case.

"It seems every time we have a hearing on this case," he said, "it becomes more complex."

Dean's attorneys said Wednesday that Jim Lane is one of the most experienced attorneys in the country in police shootings. They said Lane has been sick since mid-March and has been unable to help with pretrial preparation. Gill also said Wednesday neither Lane, Lane's doctors or Gill himself know when Lane will be well enough to help with the trial.

Hagerman added a contingency to Wednesday's ruling and said Dean's attorneys have three options: they can either find a new lead attorney to replace Lane, find a new third attorney to work with or go into the trial with just the two of them.

Hagerman said the court "will not be held hostage indefinitely" by unknown factors, like how long Lane's illness will last. He said Lane's illness appears to be "serious, debilitating and possibly even dire."

Hagerman said the trial was delayed for 18 months due to COVID and described moving the trial again as a "monumental inconvenience."

"There is no magic formula — the answer must be found within the circumstances of every case," he said.

Jefferson, a 28-year-old Black woman, was killed inside her own home in south Fort Worth. Dean, who was responding to a neighbor's call about open doors at the home, shot her through a window at the back of the house.

Jefferson was playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew when she thought she heard a prowler in the back yard, grabbed a handgun from her purse, and pointed it toward the window, the nephew told a forensic interviewer, according to an arrest warrant affidavit supporting Dean's arrest. Dean, who is white, did not identify himself as a police officer and shot Jefferson within seconds, according to body-camera video.

Dean, 37, resigned from the police department the same day he was arrested, which was two days after the shooting. The department said he would have been fired if he had not resigned.

This story was originally published May 4, 2022 3:12 PM.

(c)2022 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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