Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez (29) was acquitted on Friday of all charges relating to the fatal shooting of Philando Castile (32) during a 2016 traffic stop. Activists of groups such as Black Lives Matter are likely to perceive the verdict as evidence that police officers can kill black people at will. Castile’s shooting death at the hands of Yanez on July 6, 2016, became international news because his female companion, Diamond Reynolds, who was with him in a vehicle, streamed the aftermath of the shooting live on Facebook. Yanez had been charged in Ramsey County with one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of reckless discharge of a firearm for killing Castile.

Castile had a record for mostly minor infractions, being stopped 49 Times in 13 Years. In Reynolds’ video, and again on the stand last week, Yanez said that Castile was grasping for a pistol. However, Reynolds said and later testified that Castile had tried to cooperate by producing his driver’s license. Castile’s death produced weeks of protests in Minneapolis and environs, which included an encampment outside the governor’s mansion in St. Paul, while questioning the treatment meted out by law enforcement to citizens. The shooting occurred in St. Anthony, a suburb of Minneapolis.

Prosecutors argued that Yanez had created a dangerous situation by assuming to see a threat even though one did not exist. In the shooting, Yanez killed Castile and nearly wounded Reynolds and her four-year-old daughter who was in the back seat of the car. In closing arguments on Monday, Prosecutor Jeffrey Paulsen said, “He was making assumptions and jumping to conclusions without engaging in the dialogue he was trained to have in a citizen encounter like this.” Paulsen added, “And that’s his fault, not the fault of Philando Castile.” Castile had a license to carry a gun. On a dashboard camera video, he could be heard telling Yanez that he had a weapon in the car. Yanez ordered him not to reach for the weapon.

Castile and Reynolds assured the officer that he was not doing so. However, Yanez fired seven shots, killing Castile. Prosecutors argued that Castile revealed that he had a gun in order to ally Yanez’ concern rather than threaten him. Prosecutor Paulsen said, “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.” Defense attorneys argued that Castile was negligent in the shooting because he volunteered that he had a gun but did not say that he had a carry permit. They said he reached for the gun instead of keeping his hands visible, and that he was intoxicated by marijuana and thus incapable of obeying Yanez’ order not to reach for the gun. A pistol was recovered from Castile’s right front shorts pocket as medics and police prepared to move him onto a backboard. Castile had a permit to carry the handgun.

 

One of Yanez’ lawyers argued that the officer smelled marijuana and believed Castile matched the description of a recent robbery suspect and saw him grabbing a gun.

Lawyer Earl Gray told jurors, “We have him ignoring his commands. He’s got a gun. He might be the robber. He’s got marijuana in his car” Yanez’ lawyer added, “Those are the things in Officer Yanez’s head.” While Yanez did not tell Castile about the robbery suspicions, Gray argued that his approach was correct and that the defendant acted reasonably. “He did what he had to do,” Mr. Gray said, adding that the situation was “tragic.” “We’re not saying that Philando Castile was going to shoot Officer Yanez,” Gray said told the jury. “What we’re saying is that he did not follow orders. He was stoned.”

Prosecutor Paulsen said that the defense’s version of the incident is contradicted by Reynold’s video. Paulsen said that video shows that Castile was driving normally, pulled over quickly, and was alert and courteous when speaking to Yanez. He accused the defense of blaming the victim. “He offered no resistance,” Paulsen said. “He made no threats. He didn’t even complain about being stopped for such a minor offense.” Yanez said on the stand on June 9 that he fired his service weapon at Castile out of fear for his life. “I thought I was going to die,” Yanez testified in court. “I had no other choice. I was forced to engage Mr. Castile. He was not complying with my directions.” When he saw Castile grab a gun near his right thigh, Yanez testified, visions of his wife and “baby girl” flashed through his mind.

Philando Castile

Yanez’ attorney, Thomas Kelly, asked Yanez whether he wanted to shoot Castile. Yanez wept on the stand. “I did not want to shoot Mr. Castile at all,” he replied. “Those were not my intentions.” The jury of 12, including two black people, sorted through conflicting narratives of the events that led to Castile’s death. It is believed that this is the first time in Minnesota history that an officer has been charged for an on-duty fatal shooting. It was closely watched by the police and public. In another case of a police shooting of citizen, Tulsa officer Betty Jo Shelby was acquitted last month in Oklahoma was acquitted of manslaughter for fatally shooting an unarmed black man. In Cincinnati and Milwaukee, officers are standing trial this week for fatal shootings. See Spero News coverage.

Officer Jeronimo Yanez

Deliberating for five days, the jury that consisted of five women and seven men reached a verdict at 2 p.m. on Friday. The verdict was read to the court at 2:45 p.m. Yanez had been charged in Ramsey County with one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of reckless discharge of a firearm for killing Castile.

 

 

A still from a video taken in the car where Philando Castile was shot to death

Jurors asked the court Friday to reread the officer’s testimony in its entirety. Ramsey County District Court Judge William H. Leary III denied this second request without explanation. Leary read their note in court, “The jury respectfully requests that the entirety of officer Yanez’ testimony on the stand, including direct examination by the defense and subsequent cross-examination by the prosecution, be read from the transcript.” Valerie Castile, sister and supporters watched the proceedings. Yanez’ wife, parents, brothers and several supporters were also present. Castile was a cafeteria worker at a local school and had been a straight-A student in high school.



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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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