The case against Officer Yanez — believed to be the first time in Minnesota history that an officer was charged in an on-duty fatal shooting — hinged on one central question: Did the officer have reason to fear that Mr. Castile was reaching for a gun that he had acknowledged having with him when he was pulled over by the officer?
Saturday June 17, 2017
By MITCH SMITH
Family and friends of Valerie Castile and Philando Castile, including John Thompson, center, wept as he walked out of the courthouse after Jeronimo Yanez was found not guilty on all counts in the shooting death of Philando Castile. CreditElizabeth Flores/Star Tribune, via Associated Press
ST. PAUL — The images had transfixed people around the world: A woman live-streaming the aftermath of a police shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, and narrating the searing, bloody scene that was unfolding around her.
On Friday, a jury here acquitted the Minnesota police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, of all charges in shooting, which happened in July 2016 and left Mr. Castile dead, raising the national debate over police conduct toward black people. Officer Yanez, an officer for the suburb of St. Anthony, had been charged with second-degree manslaughter and endangering safety by discharging a firearm in the shooting.
The verdict was announced in a tense courtroom here late Friday afternoon, after five days of deliberations, and the officer was led quickly out of the courtroom, as were the 12 jurors. Mr. Castile’s family, which had nervously watched the proceedings from the front row, abruptly left as well.
“My son loved this city, and this city killed my son,” Mr. Castile’s mother, Valerie, said as she stood on a corner outside the courthouse afterward. “And a murderer gets away. Are you kidding me right now?”
She continued, “The system in this country continues to fail black people and will continue to fail us.”
Officer Yanez testified that he feared Mr. Castile was grabbing for the gun, but Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, said he had merely been reaching for his identification to give the officer.
Though there was dashboard camera video of the events, as well as the live-stream video that Ms. Reynolds began taking after the shooting, there was no video clearly revealing the crucial moments in the front seat of Mr. Castile’s car — and how precisely he had moved his hands before the officer fired.
The shooting set off large marches across the twin cities and, at one point, blocked off a major highway. It drew notice from President Barack Obama, as well as the governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, who asked aloud: “Would this have happened if the driver were white, if the passengers were white?”
On Friday, as news of the acquittal filtered out, a small group of protesters gathered outside the courthouse, expressing anger and dismay. “It’s not us that were on trial, it was the system that was on trial,” said Mel Reeves, a community activist.
Later in the evening, protesters gathered at the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul to express their displeasure with the verdict. The police estimated that 1,500 people set off from there on a march, causing traffic backups and transit delays.
Mike Padden, a lawyer representing Ms. Reynolds, said he was surprised and disappointed by the verdict. “For those who are committed to the idea of leveling the playing field with law enforcement and the citizenry, it’s a big blow,” he said.
John J. Choi, the prosecutor who announced the charges against Officer Yanez, said on Friday that “this verdict brings a lot of hurt and pain and deep-seated frustration for a lot of people in this community.” Mr. Choi said he was disappointed in the verdict, and believed that Mr. Castile “did nothing that justified the taking of his life.”
“We gave it our best shot,” said Mr. Choi, the Ramsey County attorney. “We really did.”
The acquittal was the latest example of charges against an officer, but not a conviction. In recent years, officers in Cleveland, Pennsylvania and Tulsa, Okla., have been found not guilty of manslaughter. Elsewhere, including Cincinnati and South Carolina, jurors have deadlocked on charges after a fatal shooting and failed to deliver any verdict at all.
Among some advocates for police officers, the outcome was met with approval.
Earl Gray, a lawyer for Officer Yanez, said he was gratified with the outcome, but frustrated that charges were ever brought.
“The state didn’t have a case in the first place,” Mr. Gray said in an interview on Friday evening after the acquittal. “But because of the protests and the political pressure, I suppose you’d call it, he was charged and he had to go into court and defend himself.”
Mr. Gray said Officer Yanez was “still very shook up” after the verdict, but “extremely happy it’s over.”
“He wants to get on with his life,” Mr. Gray said.
As the officer left the courtroom, Judge William H. Leary III had said, “Mr. Yanez, you will now be excused from this matter with no further obligation to this court. Good luck to you.”
Despite the verdict, though, officials with the city of St. Anthony, where Officer Yanez has worked for several years, issued a statement late Friday saying that they had “concluded that the public will be best served if Officer Yanez is no longer a police officer in our city.” They said they planned to offer him a “voluntary separation agreement.” In the meantime, the city said, he will not be returning to patrol.
Through a week of testimony in the trial, the case had centered chiefly on the conflicting accounts of what Mr. Castile, a longtime school cafeteria worker whom Officer Yanez had pulled over for a broken taillight at twilight on a summer evening, was doing before he was shot.
Prosecutors said Officer Yanez had created a dangerous situation, perceived a threat where none existed and, in addition to killing Mr. Castile, almost wounded Ms. Reynolds and her young daughter in the back seat.
What happened in recent cases where blacks were killed by the police or died in police custody.
“He was making assumptions and jumping to conclusions without engaging in the dialogue he was trained to have in a citizen encounter like this,” Jeffrey Paulsen, a prosecutor, said in closing arguments. “And that’s his fault, not the fault of Philando Castile.”
Mr. Castile was licensed to carry a gun and was recorded on a dashboard camera video calmly telling Officer Yanez that he had a weapon in the car. Officer Yanez told him not to reach for the weapon, and Mr. Castile and Ms. Reynolds both tried to assure the officer that he was not doing so. Within seconds, Officer Yanez fired seven shots.
Prosecutors said Mr. Castile had mentioned his gun to allay concerns, not to threaten the officer or escalate the situation. “If someone were just about to reach in their pocket and pull out a gun and shoot an officer, that’s the last thing they would say,” Mr. Paulsen said.
Mr. Gray, the defense lawyer, said Officer Yanez had to react quickly to what he believed was an imminent threat. He said Officer Yanez smelled marijuana, believed that Mr. Castile matched the description of a recent robbery suspect and saw him grabbing a gun.
“We have him ignoring his commands. He’s got a gun. He might be the robber. He’s got marijuana in his car,” Mr. Gray told jurors. “Those are the things in Officer Yanez’s head.”
Officer Yanez did not tell Mr. Castile about the robbery suspicions, only that his brake light was out. But Mr. Gray said that this approach made sense, and that Officer Yanez had acted reasonably given his training and what he knew that night.
“He did what he had to do,” Mr. Gray said, adding that the situation was “tragic.”
The jury of 12, including two black people, had to sort through the competing narratives. Both prosecutors and defense lawyers said the video footage supported their version of events.
At Officer Yanez’s trial, in this small courtroom in downtown St. Paul, defense lawyers made repeated mention of Mr. Castile’s and Ms. Reynolds’s use of marijuana. The drug was found in Mr. Castile’s car after the shooting, and Mr. Gray said that Mr. Castile had been under the influence of marijuana and delayed in his reactions at the time of the shooting.
“We’re not saying that Philando Castile was going to shoot Officer Yanez,” Mr. Gray said. “What we’re saying is that he did not follow orders. He was stoned.”
But Mr. Paulsen, the prosecutor, said that version of events was contradicted by video. He said footage showed that Mr. Castile was driving normally, pulled over quickly and was alert and courteous when talking to Officer Yanez. He accused the defense of blaming the victim.
“He offered no resistance,” Mr. Paulsen said of Mr. Castile. “He made no threats. He didn’t even complain about being stopped for such a minor offense.”