“It is not disqualifying to have some awareness of a case or even exposure to some very strong opinions of a case.”
TARRANT COUNTY, Texas — As attorney’s push for a new judge, the murder trial for Aaron Dean, a former Fort Worth police officer, is delayed again.
The trial was set to start this week after a ruling from District Judge David Hagerman in May.
Dean’s attorneys requested a change in venue, during that May hearing, as well as a delayed trial date. Hagerman ruled to delay the trial until late June but to keep the trial in Tarrant County.
Dean’s attorneys presented numerous clips from various local news outlets as part of their argument that the trial should be moved. Hagerman stated that media coverage of Dean’s case has been “pervasive” and possibly even prejudicial, but not inflammatory.
Dean was charged with murder for killing Atatiana Jefferson in October 2019. The case has been high publicized and included in a list of cases spurring protests and calls for social justice reform around the country.
“It will be difficult to find jurors who are not aware of Aaron Dean or the circumstances surrounding this case,” Anna Offit, an assistant professor at the SMU Dedman School of Law, said. “Nonetheless, we will certainly find jurors who assert that they can fairly, and impartially, serve. Those are the jurors who should be empaneled.”
Offit has a specific research focus on jurors and has written multiple publications on the topic. She said judges have a number of methods to weed out impartial jurors and that selection process is especially important in high profile cases, like Dean’s, that have received a lot of media coverage. She said that will ultimately be the thing that assures a fair trial for Dean.
“There’s no requirement under the sixth amendment that an impartial juror is a juror that has no awareness about a case…no awareness of issues surrounding a case,” Offit said.
An example Offit cited was a decision handed down from the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the trial for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
“Reaffirming this idea that and impartial jury is not an ignorant jury,” Offit said. “It is not disqualifying to have some awareness of a case or even exposure to some very strong opinions of a case.”
Offit said she believes Dean’s chances of getting a fair trial are the same in Tarrant County as they would be anywhere else.
“I think he can have a fair trial in Tarrant County, and the reason for that is the facts of this case…coverage of this case have not been limited to Tarrant County,” Offit said. “There’s no reason to take a case like this out of the hands of a community that suffered a loss.”
Angela Downes, a UNT Dallas law professor and former prosecutor, agreed. While the nearly three years since the incident have been filled with strong feelings on both sides of the aisle, she said it will be the responsibility of the prosecutors, the defense team and the judge to keep jurors focused on the details of this specific case.
“I think if we can be really steadfast in our belief with really not getting into this vitriol that we’re seeing, I think he can get a fair trial,” Downes said.
On the other end of the conversation, Downes said it’s important to note the difficulty in prosecuting law enforcement officers.
“The reason that it’s so rare is we have an inherent trust of law enforcement, and we believe what law enforcement tells us,” Downes said.
Last year, when Derek Chauvin was sentenced for murdering George Floyd, criminologist Phil Stinson shared his research on police crime with WFAA. His data showed that non-federal law enforcement officers in the United States kill about 1,000 people every year. Since 2019, fewer than 13 have been charged with murder and sentenced since 2005.
“The only reason he will be serving a lengthy sentence now is because of the video evidence,” Stinson said of Chauvin’s sentence.
Downes said people are taught to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt, so presenting a different narrative to jurors is hard.
“When things go wrong or things go awry and they say, ‘I acted this way because I needed to protect myself,’ we’re going to believe them,” Downes said. “When you have to present that’s not the case, they have a problem with that and it’s difficult to unravel.'”
Both Offit and Downes said the 12 people selected as jurors will be tasked with tuning out the noise of public opinion and honing in on the facts presented in the case to decide on a verdict that will undoubtedly produce a strong reaction from the public either way.
As the hearing continues to potentially appoint another judge to the case, a new trial date has not yet been set.