After two days of deliberations, a 12-member jury sentenced Aaron Dean to 11 years, 10 months, and 12 days in prison for fatally shooting Black woman Atatiana Jefferson in 2019. The white former cop’s manslaughter conviction is historic, not only as the first instance of a peace officer being found guilty of manslaughter for an on-the-job shooting in Tarrant County but also as the first time national viewers witnessed how far our criminal justice system will go to protect rogue cops.
Longtime defense attorney Lesa Pamplin, who sat throughout most of the trial, believes Judge George Gallagher mishandled the case from beginning to end. His dereliction of duty did not surprise her, given Tarrant County’s predominantly white male power structure. During the second week of the trial and sentencing, Gallagher allowed Dean’s relatives to console him in front of jurors — a form of open fraternization typically prohibited during criminal trials, she said.
On Friday, Dean defense attorney Miles Brissette surprised court watchers when he called citizen journalist Manuel Mata from the gallery to be sworn in as a witness. Based on livestream footage of the hearing, the summons shocked Mata, given his lack of first-hand knowledge of the case. Pamplin alleges the unlawful arrest was likely orchestrated by Tarrant County’s power brokers.
“When Mata entered the courtroom, a bailiff nodded” to defense attorney Brissette, Pamplin alleges, meaning the bailiffs and possibly Gallagher were colluding with Dean’s defense team.
How Gallagher knew about Mata’s seven outstanding misdemeanor charges, most of which stem from retaliation from peace officers who did not like being filmed by Mata, remains a mystery. Mata maintained his composure as Gallagher asked whether the citizen journalist would take the oath. Mata, citing his need for an attorney and not understanding why he was being summoned, declined to testify and was arrested and taken to Tarrant County Jail, a move that prompted one Channel 8/WFAA reporter to call the proceedings a “clown show.”
Gallagher’s reckless actions garnered more than 400,000 views on the YouTube channel Law and Crime Network. The judge’s revoking of Mata’s jail bond and the slew of sworn complaints and potential lawsuits now coming Gallagher’s way, Pamplin said, aids the defense because they can now cite irregularities of the court when seeking a retrial.
Pamplin’s alleged observations of court bailiffs nodding at attorneys may well have been part of a larger concerted effort by District Attorney Sharen Wilson, the Tarrant County judiciary, and the Fort Worth police union to throw the case. The Weekly was the only news outlet to publish original reporting showing Gallagher’s history of using bogus prosecutors, including Brissette, to cover-up documented acts of public corruption (“ Clown Show,” Dec. 17).
The long delay in the trial was no accident, as several legal experts and social justice advocates told me. Those setbacks typically favor the defense, as alleged victims potentially die or refuse to testify, witnesses become less reliable, and general community apathy grows. When the trial did begin more than three years after Dean killed Jefferson, prosecutors initially brought a weak case.
In other large counties, said Minister Dominique Alexander, who follows police shooting cases with Black victims, DA offices usually allocate vast resources to prosecutors. When those cases do go before a jury, he said, it is common to see four or five prosecutors working the final trial. DA Wilson placed two prosecutors on the case who closed their arguments in less than three days, a move that stunned many legal experts. The prosecutors, Alexander said, failed to humanize Jefferson as the loving sister, aunt, and aspiring scientist she was.
Supporters of justice for Jefferson called for nothing less than a murder conviction, and the outcome of manslaughter — a charge typically associated with DUI fatalities — fell short of justice in the eyes of many. Former Fort Worth mayoral candidate Deborah Peoples said convicting a white police officer of murdering a Black person was a stretch for Tarrant County.
“I sat and watched in sadness as so many rushed to breathe a sigh of relief that Aaron Dean was found guilty of manslaughter,” she continued in a public statement. “They were quick to say justice was done. Our people have been raised to expect so little from our justice system.”
During the trial, locals were reminded that Fort Worth police serve the interests of the wealthy and well-connected when an anonymous group of justice activists placed a coffin on Mayor Mattie Parker’s front yard. Inscribed on the casket were the names of Black men and women killed by Fort Worth police over the past several years. Within hours, Fort Worth police announced they were looking into the political stunt as a terroristic threat, a potential Class B misdemeanor charge.
Four days after Mata’s unlawful arrest, Gallagher ordered his release, possibly to calm national backlash at the judge’s misconduct. Mata took to the Facebook Live show of local history buff Larry O’Neal to say why he believes he was arrested.
“My arrest has to do with my YouTube channel,” said Mata, referring to his popular online outlet for documenting police misconduct. “This judge protects cops. I’m not the only who has found out that this dude will spin stuff and cover up” corruption.
For supporters of justice, something good came from the past two agonizing weeks. The legacy of the Dean trial may be how it brought a national spotlight to the systemic problems in Tarrant County that our magazine has reported on for more than 26 years. If locals can watch and follow our court system even when there isn’t a high-profile murder trial, Tarrant County just might one day be able to expect more from its justice system.