A groundswell of activists and leaders of grassroot groups is preparing a multifaceted and sustained effort for justice. They want to push local and state officials to set a trial for Aaron Dean. The former Fort Worth police officer shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson through her back window in late 2019 after Jefferson’s neighbor called a non-emergency line to report an open door at the home that Jefferson shared with her mother.
Dean remains free on bail, and Judge David Hagerman, whose docket is slated to handle the trial, has tentatively — but not officially — set August as the trial date. Jefferson’s sister, Amber Carr, said the local criminal justice system cares nothing for the suffering caused by Dean and seemingly endless legal delays.
The Tarrant County District Attorney’s office “calls periodically to make you feel like you have been updated on something, but you haven’t been updated on anything because nothing changes,” Carr said.
Carr sees a sharp divide between Tarrant County’s criminal justice system and other municipalities that have moved forward on prosecuting officers who kill unarmed Black men and women. Jefferson County attorneys have set an August 31 trial date for Brett Hankison, the former Louisville Metro Police Department officer and one of three officers who raided the home of Breonna Taylor in March of 2020. The no-knock warrant for a drug search resulted in Taylor being shot six times by police and subsequently dying. No drugs were found.
This March will see the first trial related to the murder of George Floyd, the 46-year-old Black man who died last May after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest. Chauvin faces second-degree murder charges, and the three other officers who were also on the scene and either restrained Floyd or failed to intervene in Floyd’s murder face aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter charges.
Nysse Nelson, leader of the Black Lives Matter-aligned group Enough Is Enough, said she is “really pissed off” at the lack of movement in the Aaron Dean trial.
“I don’t think I was this mad during the protests,” she said, referring to the unprecedented nonviolent protests she co-led this past summer. Nelson has been drawn to “Atatiana Jefferson’s family. Her nephew Zion spends nights at my house. He calls me his aunt. Everyone forgets there was a damn kid” who saw Jefferson’s murder.
Regional celebrities like Deion Sanders and Leon Bridges have been silent over Jefferson’s murder, she continued.
“That’s some bullshit,” Nelson said. “Public figures are obliged to fight for their people. Nobody is doing it. The family is pissed off and going through stress. It’s a lot. I’m ready to get some civil disobedience tickets.”
Officials like DA Sharen Wilson, State Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Judge Hagerman are on Nelson’s contact list.
“This is a new effort,” Nelson said. “We will blow their phone lines up so much they won’t get a call about anything but Atatiana’s case. We want a trial date.”
Joining the civic-minded collaboration is Kendra Richardson, who heads a volunteer movement to end local food apartheid by stocking community fridges (“Feeding Funkytown,” Jan. 13).
“Fort Worth is still convicting people, and they are still arresting people,” Richardson said. “Court dates are still being set for everyone but Aaron Dean. I understand how the system works. I was the president of the NAACP [chapter at Stephen F. Austin State University], and I am a Black woman in America. I know who the system is against and who it is for. We know the DA controls the case, but the mayor can do something. [Fort Worth City Councilmember] Ann Zadeh can do something. They have chosen to do nothing for the past two years, and we are not happy. The power is in the people, and we will make them do what we need them to do because that is why we pay them.”
Richardson (who can be reached via Instagram @FunkyTownFridge) said she welcomes “anyone willing to join the fight. We will continue to put pressure on the city until they do something about Aaron Dean and his murderous heart.”
Mayor Betsy Price said in an email that COVID-19 has caused significant delays for the Texas criminal justice system.
The Texas Supreme Court has not yet opened courts for trial, “and many cases are left in this frustrating limbo,” Price said. “I realize that not having that ability to move forward and find closure can cause a continued mental and emotional drain, and I fully support this case being handled in a swift manner at the earliest the district attorney is able to do so.”
An emergency order signed last month by Nathan Lincoln Hecht, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, states that courts must “continue to use all reasonable efforts to conduct proceedings remotely. Courts must not conduct in-person proceedings [contrary to state guidelines] regarding social distancing, maximum group size, and other restrictions and precautions. Existing grand juries may meet remotely or in-person as long as adequate social distancing and other restrictions and precautions are taken to ensure the health and safety of court staff, parties, attorneys, jurors, and the public.”
Deborah Peoples, chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party and current mayoral candidate, said Fort Worthians are right to expect elected officials to call for justice and accountability.
“The mayor’s job is to set an example for this city,” Peoples said. “People need to see that the case is moving forward. As elected officials, we should be working to make sure that happens so this city can start to heal. The mayor should be out there saying we all want justice and accountability.”
As other counties across the country move forward with similar high-profile murder cases, Carr said her family is beyond frustrated at the delays in Dean’s trial. Often lost in the family’s tragedy is the fact that Zion, Carr’s son, witnessed her aunt’s murder. The events traumatized him, Carr said.
“Her nephew has suffered a lot,” she said. “He has his moments where he doesn’t want to be here. He doesn’t understand why things are the way they are. He is asking questions that kids shouldn’t ask. I feel like his innocence has been taken from him. At school, sometimes a campus officer helps with pickups and dropoff drop-off. When we pick him up, the officer holds the car door open for the boys. Sometimes Zion flinches. He used to want to be a police officer when he was young. Now, he is terrified of the police.”