FORT WORTH, Texas — On the day that his trial had most recently been scheduled to start, attorneys for former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean were still in court as expected -- but were instead seeking to have the judge overseeing the high-profile case removed.
Dean’s attorneys contend that District Judge David Hagerman has shown bias in his handling of the case, making it impossible for their client to get a fair trial in the 2019 death of Atatiana Jefferson.
The defense attorneys called 11 witnesses over the course of Thursday's proceedings, most of them attorneys and Sheriff’s officials overseeing courthouse security. Many of the witnesses testified that the judge had been overtly antagonistic towards Deans’ attorneys -- to a degree that they had never seen from a judge.
“I’ve never seen that kind of tension before,” said Tarrant County Sheriff’s Capt. Bobby Hardin, who oversees courthouse security, before describing Hagerman as “somewhat hostile” to the defense.
Dean’s attorneys, Miles Brissette and Bob Gill, filed a motion for recusal after the judge declined to delay the June 23 trial date during a June 3 hearing. The attorneys have argued in court and in court filings alike that the case had to be delayed because they had older cases set for trial in other courts that, by state law, were required to proceed before the Dean case could.
Lawyers also said a key expert witness wasn’t available for the June trial date, and that lead defense attorney Jim Lane is still too ill to go to trial. Gill and Brissette also said in court filings that they had put in vacation requests in accordance with local rules, which the judge was refusing to take into consideration.
Dean is charged with murder in Jefferson's death. He fatally shot her while responding to a welfare check at her home in October 2019, police said.
Tarrant County Sheriff’s Executive Chief Deputy Craig Driskell was among those who testified that the judge had grown increasingly antagonistic towards the defense -- and, in particular, toward Gill.
“It seemed like it was something personal,” Driskell said.
Driskell said he had reported the tensions to his supervisors. He also testified that, after the defense put him on the list to appear in Thursday's proceedings, he received a call from District Attorney Sharen Wilson, who wanted to know why he had been put on the list.
During the conversation, Driskell said Wilson told him, "You don’t work for me. If you want my advice, just quit talking."
Longtime defense attorney and former prosecutor Don Carter testified that he had attended a June 3 hearing in Hagerman’s court over Brissette and Gill's scheduling conflicts. Carter testified that he was “stunned” by Hagerman’s demeanor during that June 3 hearing.
“The first thing I observed when he came out of chambers to take the bench [was] he was mad,” Carter said. “He was angry.”
Carter said it was common knowledge that Hagerman wanted to try the case on a certain date in spite of vacations, trial conflicts and the lead attorney being hospitalized with illness.
Harmony Schuerman, another defense attorney, told Gill that Hagerman seemed angry with him in that June 3 hearing.
“I felt like he was being very disrespectful towards the defense,” Schuerman said, adding that he though Hagerman was “sneering” Gill.
Roseanna Salinas, a defense attorney and member of the local defense lawyers association, also attended the June 3 hearing.
“[Hagerman] was very dismissive of the defense’s attempt to explain what was going on with the conflicts and scheduling,” Salinas said. “His attitude was extremely hostile... His words and attitude will lead a jury to believe that he want a conviction, that he is the third prosecutor in the courtroom.”
Several defense attorneys also acknowledged that Hagerman can be rude and overbearing in his courtroom demeanor, but said the behavior they saw during the June 3 hearing crossed the line, leaving them to believe that Dean could not get a fair trial in Hagerman's court.
In closing, Gill argued that the defense had proved through their witnesses that Hagerman was biased against the defense, and particularly against him.
“It’s a big case,” Gill said. “It deserves to have a judge that’s going to be fair to everybody.”
Prosecutors contend that the judge had not shown a bias against the defense. They pointed out that the judge had twice granted continuances in the case, including once when lead attorney Lane became seriously ill.
“Texas law is well-settled that complaints about judicial rulings do not constitute a valid basis for recusal of a judge based on allegations of bias or partiality,” prosecutors said in a court filing.
Senior Justice Lee Gabriel is overseeing the recusal hearing. At the end of the hearing, she said she’d been given a lot of to think about and would likely issue a ruling next week.
No trial date is currently set in the Dean case.