The judge overseeing the Aaron Dean trial ordered Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker and District 8 Councilman Chris Nettles to appear in court Jan. 4 to argue why they should not be found in contempt of court for defying a gag order.
Nettles and Parker both released statements to the press after a jury found Dean, a former Fort Worth Police officer, guilty of manslaughter in the 2019 killing of Atatiana Jefferson. Both statements were published by the Fort Worth Report and other media outlets.
Parker and Nettles were the only council members placed under a gag order by Judge David Hagerman, said Reyne Telles, a spokesman for the city of Fort Worth. Hagerman was replaced by Judge George Gallagher in June after Dean’s defense team successfully argued that Hagerman was hostile to the defense.
When Parker and Nettles were sworn in as witnesses in a 2021 pre-trial hearing, they were told they could not comment to the media leading up to and during the duration of the trial, Telles said. The only physical document the city can produce is Hagerman’s gag order issued on Oct. 25, 2019, which limited pretrial comment by attorneys and others connected closely to the case. That order extended to the council members when they were sworn in as witnesses, Telles said.
Both Parker and Nettles will attend a show cause hearing at noon Jan 4. A show cause order directs Nettles and Parker to appear before a judge for a hearing and explain why they should not be found in contempt of court. If the judge finds that they violated the gag order, Parker and Nettles could face a fine or jail time.
Nettles and Parker declined to comment.
Nettles and Parker were subpoenaed to be witnesses in a pre-trial hearing where Dean’s defense lawyers argued that the trial should be held outside of Tarrant County. The defense argued that public statements from elected officials, including Nettles and former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, would lead to a biased jury pool in Tarrant County and prevent Dean from receiving a fair trial.
Following brief testimonies by Nettles, Price and former Fort Worth Police Chief Ed Kraus, the court denied the change-of-venue motion in November, allowing the trial to proceed this month in Fort Worth.
Joe Larsen, a media attorney and a Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas board member, said the case against the elected officials seemed tenuous at best. The purpose of a gag order is to prevent jurors from being swayed by any misleading information and prevent the release of information that might or might not be admitted in the trial, he said.
“I don’t think anything any of these people said introduces anything new, new evidence, (or) anything misleading,” Larsen said. “They are commenting on the process… and they are perfectly within their rights to do that.”
The sentencing phase of the trial began Dec. 16, one day after the manslaughter conviction was announced. The jury will resume Monday deciding Dean’s sentence. As long as the jury is in court, the gag order placed on Nettles, Parker and other parties likely still applies, Larsen said.
“The purpose of the gag order is still being served as long as the jury’s still out,” Larsen said. “On the other hand, any kind of public comment that doesn’t introduce some kind of evidence that wasn’t introduced to the jury is going to be perfectly fine.”
Price also provided a statement to the Report in response to the verdict late Thursday. When a Fort Worth Report journalist approached Judge Gallagher following the Friday sentencing hearing, he indicated only Parker and Nettles were ordered to appear in court.
In her statement to the Fort Worth Report, Price applauded the professionalism of Gallagher and the jury.
“It is my hope and prayer that today’s long-awaited verdict provides a sense of closure and peace to Atatiana Jefferson’s family, friends, loved ones and our entire community,” Price wrote. “Together we must acknowledge that there is still work to be done as we overcome the biases and inequities in an effort to make Fort Worth the best city in the nation.”
Larsen said Parker and Nettles have a strong defense against any contempt charge.
“It’s going to be really, really, really hard for the judge to make this contempt of court stick,” Larsen said.
Although council members were not explicitly mentioned in the gag order, Parker and Nettles’ past comments and actions to the media about the trial were mentioned in a motion filed by Dean’s attorneys to change the location of the trial.
In her statement issued after the verdict, Parker called for community members to remember Jefferson’s legacy and come together to heal. Nettles, who advocated for a community police review board that was voted down by council members last month, criticized the judicial process following the Dec. 15 verdict.
“This verdict is a slap in the face to the Black communities in Fort Worth and across the country,” Nettles said in his statement. “This verdict says that a white man can murder a Black woman in her own home with nothing more than a slap on the wrist — literally… I will continue to use my voice to fight for fairness, justice and equality in Fort Worth.”
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