Fort Worth Mayor & Council Member Face Contempt of Court Hearing for Public Comments on Dean Verdict
Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker and District 8 Councilman Chris Nettles were ordered by the judge overseeing the Aaron Dean trial to appear in court January 4 to argue why they should not be found in contempt of court for defying the judge’s gag order.
During a pre-trial hearing where Dean’s defense lawyers argued the trial should be held outside of Tarrant County, Nettles and Parker were subpoenaed to be witnesses. The defense team argued that public statements made by elected officials, including Nettles and former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, would lead to a biased jury pool and prevent Dean from receiving a fair trial in Tarrant County.
In November, the court denied the change-of-venue motion, following brief testimonies given by Price, Nettles, and former Fort Worth Police Chief Ed Kraus, allowing the trial to proceed this month in Fort Worth.
Both Nettles and Parker released statements to the press following the trial, where the jury found Dean, a former Forth Worth Police officer, guilty of manslaughter in the 2019 killing of Atatiana Jefferson. The statements were published by several media outlets, including the Fort Worth Report.
Mayor Mattie Parker at the Fort Worth Convention Center on June 15. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)
Nettles and Parker are set to appear before a judge at noon on January 4 for a show cause hearing to explain why they should not be found in contempt of court. If the judge finds they violated the gag order, Parker and Nettles could face a fine or jail time.
Councilmember Chris Nettles exits the court room at the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center after waiting for a verdict in the trial of former police officer Aaron Dean on Dec. 15, 2022. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)
Joe Larsen, media attorney with Gregor, Wynne & Arney, PLLC and a Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas board member, was interviewed by the Fort Worth Report, and said the case against the elected officials seemed “tenuous at best.” According to Larsen, the purpose of a gag order is to prevent jurors from being swayed by misleading information and prevent the release of information that might or might not be admitted in trial.
“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.”
December 16, one day after the manslaughter conviction was announced, the sentencing phase of the trial began. The jury will resume Monday deciding Deans’ sentence. “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.”
According to attorney Larsen, 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.