What charges could Fort Worth officer face for killing woman in her home?
Update: Former police officer Aaron Dean has been charged with murder. Read the story here.
A former prosecutor from the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office believes that there is a possibility a grand jury could indict a former police officer who was involved in a deadly shooting on Saturday.
Jack Strickland worked for 11 years at the district attorney’s office. In that time, he presented 14 cases of officer shootings to a grand jury.
He spoke to the Star-Telegram on Monday about what it takes to present similar cases to grand juries, and what could happen moving forward.
Atatiana Jefferson, 28, was shot at a home in the 1200 block of East Allen Avenue at about 2:30 a.m. Saturday after her neighbor called police because he was concerned that her two front doors had been open for hours.
At 2:25 a.m., two officers were sent to the house. At 2:29 a.m., they parked nearby, but not in front of the house. According to body camera footage, the two officers quietly walked around the house. They looked inside both open doors (the screen doors were closed) but didn’t knock or make their presence known.
At the back of house, officer Aaron Dean appeared to see a figure through a dark window, and he quickly twisted his body to the left.
“Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” he shouted through the window, his gun drawn. Dean then fired a single shot through the window as he said “hands,” giving no time for a response.
In the video, Dean, who is shining a light through the window, did not identify himself as police.
Dean resigned from the police department on Monday morning, ahead of a meeting where Interim Chief Ed Kraus said he planned to fire the officer. Dean has not cooperated with investigators, the chief said. Because of his resignation, Dean no longer has the protection of state civil service laws.
Kraus said he plans to release additional details about the department’s criminal investigation on Tuesday. The chief did not comment on if Dean will be charged.
However, Dean does face a Tarrant County grand jury.
“As a hypothetical, I think what has happened in Dallas gives us a good idea that it’s certainly possible a grand jury could indict this officer,” Strickland said, referring to two recent cases where prosecutors successfully indicted and convicted police officers for killing residents.
The first happened in August 2018 when Roy Oliver was convicted of killing Jordan Edwards, an African-American 15-year-old who was unarmed and sitting in a moving vehicle in Balch Springs when Oliver opened fire. Then, last month, a jury convicted former officer Amber Guyger for the murder of Botham Jean, 26. Guyger was off-duty but in uniform when she shot and killed Jean in September 2018 after she said she mistook his apartment for her own.
It would be up to a grand jury to determine if Dean faces a charge of murder, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, something else or nothing at all, he said.
Like Jean’s death, Jefferson was also in her own home when she was killed. However, an expert said it’s too early and unfair to compare the two cases because Guyger was off-duty and Dean was on a call.
“There are some similarities,” Michael Benza, a senior instructor from the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, said on Sunday. “One of her claims was that she yelled repeatedly at him, and she shot him. However you have evidence and testimony from neighbors who said they never heard her say anything. Here, we know the officer did shout, but the shot was instantaneous with him ending that statement to raise hands.”
Strickland said it could be awhile before a grand jury hears evidence about Dean’s case. In one of the cases he presented, it took prosecutors about a year to finish their investigation.
“I can’t make any representations of the current grand jury or the current DA’s office, but it was my opinion when I presented those cases that it was my job to bring them as much information both on behalf of the victim and on behalf of the officer,” Strickland said. “It’s almost like a mini-trial. The grand jury’s job is to determine if there’s probable cause.”
Strickland said probable cause isn’t a high standard. It’s what’s needed before officers can arrest someone.
“It seems particularly important that you get the grand jury as much information as you can,” he said. “You want to get experts, witnesses, family members, the officer’s history, whether or not they have a disciplinary history, the nature of their experience while a police officer.”
After the criminal investigation is completed, police will meet with the district attorney’s office to present their evidence. Prosecutors will decide whether to accept the case for filing.
“That just means they’re preparing for the next step, doing more investigating and making a decision on how to proceed,” Strickland said.
Jefferson’s family and their attorney, Lee Merritt, have asked for an independent criminal investigation. Right now, the department’s Major Crimes Unit is investigating the shooting.
Kraus said on Monday that the department had conversations with the Texas Rangers to take over the investigation. But it’s possible they won’t take the case.
Strickland said that based on his experience working with the Major Crimes Unit, he isn’t worried and hopes that the public will “take a deep breath.”
“I don’t want there to be a rush judgment that police will cover anything up or make out as if it was the injured party’s fault,” he said. “My experience with the major case squad was always very good, they weren’t trying to cover for anybody one way or another ... I don’t think it’s fair to assume the police would do an improper or partisan investigation. I certainly never saw an indication of that.”
If Dean is indicted, he would be the second officer indicted by a Tarrant County Grand Jury in a year.
Former Arlington police officer Bau Tran was indicted in May on a charge of criminally negligent homicide in the shooting death of O’Shae Terry. Tran fired several times into Terry’s vehicle as Terry tried to drive off from a traffic stop in September of last year.
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This story was originally published October 14, 2019, 3:18 PM.