The trial of Ft. Worth police officer Aaron Dean for the killing of Atatiana Jefferson ended in a conviction for manslaughter and 12-year sentence. But in this episode, PAR investigates how the judge retaliated against supporters of Jefferson’s family who attended the trial, throwing one cop watcher in jail for refusing to be sworn in as a witness.
Studio: Stephen Janis
Studio/Post-Production: Stephen Janis, Adam Coley
Taya Graham: Hello, my name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I always make clear, this show has a single purpose: holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable. And to do so, we don’t just focus on the bad behavior of individual cops. Instead, we examine the system that makes bad policing possible.
And today we will achieve that goal by showing you this video of a man who was arrested while observing the sentence of a cop involved in a high profile killing of an innocent civilian. It is a stunning set of actions by a judge and a defense attorney that threw a well-known cop watcher into jail. But it’s also a stark reminder of how the judicial system can enforce power indiscriminately with little justification, and how the consequences of this overreach can be devastating for the people affected by it.
But before we get started, I want you to know that if you have video evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately at email@example.com. And please like, share, and comment on our videos. You know I read your comments and appreciate them, even if I don’t always get a chance to comment on each one. And we do have a Patreon link for Accountability Reports pinned below. So if you feel inspired to donate, please do. We don’t run ads or take corporate dollars, so anything you can spare is truly appreciated. Okay, we’ve gotten that out of the way.
Now, as you know on this show, we cover the excesses and abuses of American policing. But the point of this process is not just to highlight or call out bad policing. We also try to make the connection between the broader system of inequality that drives it, and how both work in tandem to diminish the rights of people in ways both unseen and unacknowledged. And no case embodies this idea more than the video I am showing you right now. It’s not a depiction of a bad arrest by an out of control cop. No. Instead, it shows the actions of a judge in concert with a defense attorney to send a man to jail who was simply observing a process that is the right of every American: the sentencing of a corrupt cop.
That’s right. A man sitting quietly in a courtroom watching the proceeding was suddenly hauled away into a cell without committing a crime. And it wasn’t just any case, mind you. It was the sentencing of a cop who killed someone. The story starts in a courtroom in Fort Worth, Texas, last month. There, Officer Aaron Dean was facing sentencing for gunning down Tatiana Jefferson. Jefferson was shot while looking out her window after a neighbor called police for a wellness check for an open door. Dean, spotting her, fired almost immediately without provocation. The shooting led to charges of manslaughter. Dean was convicted by a jury in 2021. And so this past December, he was sentenced, and that’s when the events that led to the controversial arrest we are reporting on today started. That’s because cop watcher Manuel Mata decided to attend the sentencing, as you can see here. During the proceedings, the judge abruptly stops and calls him to be sworn in. Let’s watch.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Judge: Mr. Burset.
Mr. Burset: Your Honor, I believe Mr. Mata has graced us with his presence. We ask that he be sworn in and put under the rules.
Judge: Is there a Mr. Mata in the courtroom? Can you stand right there at the rail for me, please, sir and raise your right hand for me? Do you solemnly swear or affirm testimony given in this cause be the truth, whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
Mr. Mata: I don’t know what this is about.
Speaker 6: Hey, judge, may we approach?
Mr. Mata: I don’t understand what’s going on.
Judge: I’m swearing you in as a witness so –
Mr. Mata: On What argument, sir?
Judge: All right, jury, go to the jury room.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: Now. Why the judge decided that Mr. Mata should be sworn in remains unanswered. According to people we have spoken to, the reason was, frankly, bizarre. The defense attorney asked him to swear at least four other activists in the courtroom as witnesses. Seriously? That’s right. After the verdict and the sentencing, the judge allowed the defense attorney to, it seems, retaliate against the people who attended the trial that the defendant didn’t like. Now, Stephen has reached out to authorities in Fort Worth and will report back what he learned shortly. But this startling request was just the beginning of a long series of inexplicable actions. Take a look.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Judge: All right, jury, go to the jury room. [inaudible] may be seated. Mr. Mata?
Mr. Mata: Yes.
Judge: Is your name Manuel Mata?
Mr. Mata: Yes, sir.
Judge: Your date of birth is 7/8 of 1980?
Mr. Mata: Yes, sir.
Judge: All right. I have issued you an oath to tell to testify truthfully. Are you going to take that oath?
Mr. Mata: I have a question, sir.
Judge: No. Are you going to take that oath?
Mr. Mata: No.
Judge: All right.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: Now, just a little background on Mr. Mata. He is a cop watcher who has been involved in some controversial cases. Still, on this particular day, he was not cop watching or protesting or saying anything, for that matter. All he was doing was observing an officer who was facing charges of an extra judicial killing. But apparently, his presence was enough to prompt the country’s powerful judiciary system to react inexplicably. Let’s watch again so you can see how surreal this action really was.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Judge: …Truthfully, are you going to take that oath?
Mr. Mata: I have a question, sir.
Judge: No. Are you going to take that oath?
Mr. Mata: No.
Judge: All right. You are on bond on some cases, is that correct?
Mr. Mata: Yes, sir.
Judge: Those bonds are being declared insufficient. Sheriff.
Mr. Mata: What? What’s going on? What did I do? I need my lawyer present, sir.
Judge: We will get your lawyer.
Mr. Mata: You questioned me without a lawyer present, and I don’t know what y’all doing. I don’t know what’s going on.
Mr. Burset: [inaudible].
Mr. Mata: For what? For what? I asked him a question. I don’t have no knowledge of this case, and I just wanted to know who’s asking for me to be sworn in. The defense? The DA, or the defense, the judge? Who’s asking it? Those are questions I need answered if you’re going to revoke me, you ain’t [inaudible].
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: Now, at the time the judge randomly withdrew his bail, Mr. Mata was in a precarious spot. That’s because he was in the process of defending his right to film cops. This means that when the judge revoked it, Mr. Mata was carted off immediately. Not, as I said before, for misbehaving in the courtroom, just simply sitting there. And for more on why this happened and the consequences, we’ll be talking to both Mr. Mata and HBO Matt. But before we do that, I’m joined by my reporting partner, Stephen Janis. Stephen, thank you for joining me.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: So first, you’ve been looking into the circumstances surrounding this odd courtroom drama. What have you learned?
Stephen Janis: Well, like many things, it’s pure weird on the surface. There is an underlying reason, and I think this has to do with the defense fighting back against the community’s disapproval of this officer. There was a controversy about moving the case earlier in the trial, moving it out of Fort Worth because of the idea that the community was somehow predisposed to judge this officer without evidence. And I think that’s where this is rooted in, because it seems like the defense attorney in this case is driving the entire ordeal and driving the fact that these witnesses were sworn in at such a late date in the court process.
Taya Graham: Do the rules of procedure even allow this? I mean, can you call witnesses at a sentencing?
Stephen Janis: Well, that’s the thing. The reason the defense attorney gave for calling a witness at this point was that they wanted to use this for a so-called appeal. However, I think the real reason was because once you’re a witness in the case, you cannot sit in the courtroom. I think the idea was to get rid of all the activists in the courtroom and to use procedure to do that. Which on the surface seems okay, but it’s not because the intention is just to remove people from the courtroom who wish to observe the legal process.
Taya Graham: Finally, did the mainstream media cover this, and what was their take on what happened?
Stephen Janis: Well, their take was kind of disturbing and illustrative at the same time. The mainstream media accused Mr. Mata of making terrorist threats. This accusation didn’t come from charges, but came from the same defense attorney that tried to remove him from the courtroom. So I think it raises a lot of questions. I think this is rooted in the community’s passion about this case and the judge trying to control it. Because early on in the case, they actually swore in the mayor and a city councilperson as witnesses too about moving the trial. And then when they criticize the verdict as being too lenient, the judge hauled them into court for a contempt of court hearing. So I think what you’re seeing here is a very troubling way of covering. Also, good to note that they accuse Mr. Mata of terrorist threats, but they did not ask him for comment, nor is his comment anywhere in, and that’s just bad journalism 101. Always seek comment, no matter what.
Taya Graham: And now before we’re joined by Mr. Mata, I want to go to an important Texas cop watcher, known as HBO Matt. As you might recall, he’s facing charges of organized crime from Levinson, Texas, Police for cop watching, which are still pending, and which he will update us on shortly. But I also wanted to get his perspective on how Mr. Mata’s ordeal fits in with the broader assault on cop watchers by Texas law enforcement. HBO Matt, thank you for joining me.
HBO Matt: Glad to be here, Taya.
Taya Graham: So first, who is Manuel Mata? He’s a police accountability activist, right? Why is he cop watching and risking arrest?
HBO Matt: Very simple of Manuel. He’s been arrested for a felony and convicted before. So he’s got a [bone] to pick, but he only goes after the cops that are doing the crazy stuff. He still doesn’t usually just go after the random cops for doing nothing. But yeah, he started because he spent time in jail and he’s come across a lot of bad cops, and now they keep coming after him, so he wants that accountability.
Taya Graham: We see him taken out of the courtroom for the trial of Aaron Dean, the officer who shot at Tatiana Jefferson through a window in Fort Worth, Texas during this wellness check. Can you describe what happened to Manuel? Why was he there and what happened?
HBO Matt: He was purely there to cover the case, to watch it, to be an observer. The night before, there was a protest against the Dean family for people who weren’t happy with only a manslaughter conviction and not murder. So at the beginning of the trial that day, we’re in the sentencing now, not the actual trial. The defense attorney calls him up by name to swear him in as a witness. Now, the game we’re pretty sure the defense attorney is playing is to just kick people out of the courtroom he doesn’t like. There is absolutely no legit reason for him to call Manuel up. And if he wanted the video from the recording the night before at the protest, he can just subpoena it for whatever appeal he is going to do later on. And Manuel’s not there yet. So he looks around the courtroom and recognizes a second person who was there at the protest that night, says, hey, who are you? He doesn’t even know who the guy is. Makes him give his name, come up, kind of brown skin too, maybe just a coincidence. That guy just goes along with it. The judge swears him in as a witness, kicks him out of the courtroom.
At some point in there, the defense attorney and the judge and some other people, we’re not sure who yet conspired, started trading info on who’s Manuel Mata and what’s he done and what can we do with him? And so about 3:00 at the end of the trial day, Manuel is there as a witness. Defense attorney calls him up. Manuel’s like, what the heck’s going on? Judge says, I’m going to swear you in. He’s like, what? How? Judge kicks the jury out and goes through this predetermined plan they came up with to judicially kidnap him, doesn’t hold him in contempt. Doesn’t say, leave the courtroom. Doesn’t say, you’re a security threat – This is going to be important later. Just says, hey, Mr. Manuel Mata date of birth, such and such. You’re out on bonds, aren’t you? Well, I’m holding those bonds insufficient. Take him away. And they just take him to jail. And he sits there for about four days in jail before the judge reinstates his bond.
Taya Graham: What do you think it is about Manuel’s work that has caused him to be targeted like this? What is he exposing that authorities are willing to misuse the law to deter him?
HBO Matt: The cop watching has just been pure retaliation from the cops. It’s been pure revenge. He’s recording, he’s very mouthy. Manuel does not like bad cops. So he’s one of those guys like Eric Grant who’ll cuss up a storm in front of these cops and just cut their ego off at the knees. So as a group, the entire Fort Worth area police just want to do everything they can to arrest him because they don’t like him.
Taya Graham: And now, to speak with the man himself about what happened and the consequences for him, I’m joined by Manuel Mata. Mr. Mata, thank you for joining me.
Manuel Mata: You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure.
Taya Graham: So first, let me ask you, why were you in the courtroom to watch the trial of Officer Aaron Dean? Why were you there, and why does this case matter to you?
Manuel Mata: Well, I actually have been following that case for about, I think, two-plus years, because this case happened right down the street from where I live. So it’s not like it’s something that I heard about. It’s something that affects my whole neighborhood because she was my neighbor. The same thing could have happened to my sister, or anybody. And this is the type of thing that we’re trying to expose, because this is a division that’s built on basic corruption and not telling the truth, and that’s all we’re asking for. That’s all any of us have ever asked for this whole time. Accountability, honesty, transparency, and it seems like they go out of their way and waste taxpayer monies to avoid those things instead of just being what they’re designed for, to protect the community and serve us.
Taya Graham: So you’re in the courtroom watching the outcome of this murder trial when you’re called up to be sworn in as a witness. Is that correct?
Manuel Mata: Yes. When Judge Gallagher called me and it was like, I didn’t know why. Because in this trial, I expected to be out of a trial setting when I was in court, so that’s why it was all weird to me that he was calling me up. And then when I went up there, to me, truthfully, honestly, saying yes and agreeing to something in courts during my experiences haven’t turned out well for me. That’s the whole reason why I’m trying to ask for transparency and accountability, because of what happened to me. So for me just to go into a courtroom blindly when I have nothing to do with it and agree to it, I wasn’t going to. That’s why I wanted to ask what was the reason? Why am I being sworn in? And I never got one. And that’s why I couldn’t do it, because I didn’t know what the ulterior motive was. Because that’s the cases I’ve dealt with, because there’s always an ulterior motive.
Taya Graham: Now, you were taken out of the courtroom in cuffs. What happened next?
Manuel Mata: The whole thing was weird from the jump. And honestly, if they would’ve just told me, hey, walk back here, I would’ve walked. I wouldn’t have ran. I wouldn’t… For what? I didn’t do nothing wrong, so why would I? And it was just weird. It’s like they wanted me to see their show of force. They wanted me to see, we are running the show here. You do what we say or else. The judges, whatever. And when they took me to the back, it was like there was two guards, and the white one was somewhat chill. It was the other one that was getting aggressive. And that’s when I told him, you don’t have to get aggressive with me. I’m complying. I ain’t tripping. It’s not your fault. I understand y’all just following orders. It’s that effort that is making y’all do this.
Taya Graham: You were able to be removed from the courtroom because your bonds were revoked. What were these bonds for?
Manuel Mata: They’re for filming cops in traffic stops. That’s all I’ve been arrested for. I’ve been arrested for interfering with public duties. And resisting arrest comes after I either refuse to identify myself because it’s not a lawful arrest, or they seem to think that… I’m already in handcuffs, but they seem to think by me telling them, hey, stop doing me like that, or that’s not how you’re supposed to handle me. And telling them you better write the use of force, I end up with these other charges.
Taya Graham: What about the personal costs? Surely the legal fees, court costs, time incarcerated all take their toll. Why do you keep doing it?
Manuel Mata: And I had a back and forth with this, so I’m glad you asked me that. I think the way I was raised and what I went through prepared me for this situation. Because everybody I’ve met along my two, three year journey doing this, they were able to silence them. They were able to stop them by either criminalizing them. If they were parents, they took their kids and threatened them with their kids. And if they were outstanding citizens, they turned them into criminals. So I grew up in those environments. And these upstanding citizens that’ve been asking for this simple thing for years, the one thing they’re able to do is those three things to each individual person in that situation to make them be quiet. I don’t have kids. I can’t have them. The good job that I had, they already took it from me. This is my job, to expose all of them.
Taya Graham: Now, I think it’s worth breaking down not just what happened to Manuel Mata, but the message it’s intended to send. Because, as we’ve tried to point out over and over again on this show, the pushback against policing isn’t just about bad cops or law enforcement overreach. In fact, what Mr. Mata and HBO Matt’s experiences reveal is that holding cops accountable also means fighting back against our inherent bias for law enforcement that gets overlooked. Oh wait, I guess you’re probably saying now, bias, Taya? What do you mean by bias for law enforcement? Is that your opinion or is that a fact? Aren’t we getting a little bit ahead of ourselves and saying we have some sort of bias towards law enforcement in this country? How can you prove it?
Fair question. Now let me explain. First, I want to talk about a study in an academic journal that has been largely overlooked, but illustrates exactly what I mean. It was a piece published by the National Library of Medicine that looked at how the largest cities prioritize services. In other words, where do our biggest municipalities put their money, and what does it say about their priorities for serving the residents who live there? Well, interestingly, the paper focused on one specific aspect of municipal spending. How do cities balance health and wellness outlays with policing? What do cities emphasize when it comes to the wellbeing of residents? Do they allocate more dollars to cops, or do they invest more in public health? And what that paper found clearly affirms my point about bias for police. Researchers found that of these top cities, only seven spent more on and emphasized social services over law enforcement. And because of that imbalance, a majority of the 50 largest metropolitan areas studied were designated carceral cities, communities where cops predominate and wellbeing suffers.
Honestly, I understand this imbalance pretty well. When I was just a city hall reporter here in Baltimore years ago, our health department was almost exclusively funded by grants, with very little spending coming directly from our city budget. Meanwhile, police spending went up and up and up and up. And what happened? Well, it’s complicated, but I can tell you this: crime didn’t go down. That is for sure. We are not considered a safe city. In fact, we regularly sit atop the list of the country’s most dangerous places to live. My point is that in a country where people can’t afford to pay medical bills, where social services go unfunded, and where tens of thousands of people remain homeless and on the streets, why is law enforcement the number one priority? Why do political leaders spend so much on cops and tasers and guns when the work to simply improve people’s lives gets tossed aside?
As we have made clear on other shows, it’s not just because of the main excuse city leaders give: crime. Because, quite frankly, the police can’t really prevent crime. And if they could, the spending by all these cities collectively would make this country the safest place on earth. Instead, I think what we see in this study is the same affliction that prompted a judge to toss a man in jail over nothing. A system that is self-perpetuating and insular despite the evidence that it truly doesn’t work. What we are witnessing in courtroom dramas like Mata’s, the prosecution of HBO Matt, and the lack of resources for health are all part of the same lineage of an irrational fixation on law enforcement as a cure for all that ails us.
I mean, I think it’s truly embarrassing that our greatest cities are also labeled as carceral. I think it’s shameful that we’ve pretty much created a system that tries to solve complex social problems with arrests and imprisonment. It’s even more disturbing when you consider that the cities which don’t qualify as carceral, namely New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, Seattle, and Philadelphia are some of the safest. All cities, save Philly, that have much lower crime rates than the communities which emphasize policing.
Now, I understand that this could also be viewed as a chicken and the egg problem. What came first? Crime or spending on police? What’s the causation here? Does the lack of spending on social services create the need to ramp up law enforcement by exacerbating poverty and neglect? To answer that question, I’m going to take a broader view and throw it back at you. I’m going to try to answer it from an entirely different perspective. See if you can answer what came first, policing or inequality? What birthed this whole law enforcement-industrial complex we are dealing with now, poverty or the need for safety? I ask this question because I think it gets to the crux of the problem. Police are not the answer to a system that cannot provide for the people in need. And it is definitely not the answer to a world built upon a foundation of unequal treatment and enforcement for people who struggle to survive and have access to healthcare.
I mean, maybe it’s not carceral cities we need to worry about. Maybe we need to consider the possibility that we all live in a carceral country. Maybe that is what we should be debating, not whether we are pro-police or anti-cop, but if we are truly pro-humanity. That’s the question that really needs to be answered.
I want to thank my guests, HBO Matt and Manuel Mata, for their work to hold police accountable and for taking the time to speak with us. Thank you both. And of course, I want to thank Intrepid reporter Stephen Janis for his writing, research, and editing on this piece. Thank you, Stephen.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
Taya Graham: And I want to thank friends of the show, Noli Dee and Laci R, for their support. Thank you. And a very special thanks to our Patreons. We appreciate you, and I look forward to thanking each and every single one of you personally in our next live stream, especially Patreon associate producers, John R and David K, and super friends Shane Busta, Pineapple Girl, and Chris R. Thank you. I appreciate you.
And I want you watching to know that if you have video evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate for you. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram, or @eyesonpolice on Twitter. And of course, you can always message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Twitter or Facebook. And please like and comment, I do read your comments and appreciate them. And even if I don’t answer every single one, I assure you I read it. And we do have a Patreon link for Accountability Reports pinned in the comments below. So if you do feel inspired to donate, please do. We don’t run ads or take corporate dollars, so anything you can spare is greatly appreciated. My name is Taya Graham, and I am your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please, be safe out there.