Whether public assessments of the circumstances of a 2019 killing in Fort Worth made by influential people in Tarrant County impacted the juror pool was the central element in dispute at oral argument on Tuesday in former police officer Aaron Dean’s appeal of his manslaughter conviction.
The year that elapsed between when many of the statements, which were reported in the press, were made and when the defense filed a motion to change the trial’s venue muted the statements’ ability to impact the pool, Assistant District Attorney Victoria Ford Oblon argued for the state in the Second Court of Appeals before Justices Elizabeth Kerr, Dabney Bassel and Brian Walker.
The panel, which had requested that the oral argument focus on the venue, will later issue an opinion.
Dean was last year convicted of manslaughter in the shooting death of Atatiana Jefferson as she held a handgun inside the house where she was living.
During selection, 43% of prospective jurors indicated they had no knowledge of the case. Many of the statements offered by influential people were innocuous calls for justice to be served, Oblon suggested.
The observations and assessments cast the case as a racial matter, Dean attorney Bob Gill argued. Jefferson was Black; Dean is white.
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Judge George Gallagher, who presides in 396th District Court in Tarrant County, erred by not changing venue for the trial because there was sufficient evidence developed of the existence of a dangerous combination of influential people to convict Dean, Gill argued.
The venue change was sought in a defense motion Gallagher denied on Dec. 5, exactly one year before Tuesday’s oral argument in the appeal.
Police Chief Ed Kraus, Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson, Mayor Betsy Price and others dangerously combined against Dean beginning immediately after the killing in offering an opinion that Dean was guilty of murder and that there was no justification for the shooting, according to the defense appellate brief. Kraus, Wilson and Price have since retired.
Price assessed publicly the fact a handgun was found next to Jefferson was “irrelevant.” Price also said that the shooting was unjustified. The statements were untrue and may have misled people who later became jurors in the trial, Gill wrote.
Price later testified at a pretrial hearing that she assumed at the time she made the first statement that Jefferson had pointed the weapon at Dean, which was disputed at trial. Price said that Jefferson had a right to have a gun at home and use it to protect herself and her nephew.
Kraus, Price, Wilson and others “did not want to take any public stance that cast the decedent in a negative light so they cast [Dean] in a negative light instead,” Gill wrote.
A grand jury indicted Dean on murder. In October 2019 he shot to death Jefferson, 28, through a window at her mother’s house in the 1200 block of East Allen Avenue.
A jury on Dec. 20 sentenced Dean to 11 years, 10 months and 12 days in prison. Dean will be eligible for parole on Nov. 18, 2028, the date on which he will have served half of the sentence.
Jefferson’s neighbor described open front doors in a phone call with a police communications employee. Dean and another officer were dispatched to the house to investigate an open structure.
The officers walked into the back yard. Inside the house, Jefferson was playing video games in a bedroom in which her 8-year-old nephew was also present. Hearing a sound in the yard, Jefferson grabbed a handgun from her purse and moved toward the window.
The direction Jefferson pointed the gun at the time that Dean fired is in dispute. Her nephew testified that she was holding the gun by her side.