A Minnesota police officer was cleared Friday in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile, a black motorist whose death captured national attention when his girlfriend streamed the grim aftermath on Facebook.
Castile’s family stormed out of the courtroom after the verdict was read, and the city of St. Anthony swiftly announced plans to dismiss Officer Jeronimo Yanez, despite his acquittal. Yanez was charged with manslaughter in the death of Castile, a 32-year-old school cafeteria worker, during a July 6 traffic stop that turned deadly seconds after Castile alerted the officer that he was carrying a gun. Castile had a permit for the weapon.
“The fact in this matter is that my son was murdered, and I’ll continue to say murdered, because where in this planet (can you) tell the truth, and you be honest, and you still be murdered by the police of Minnesota,” his mother, Valerie Castile, said, referring to the fact that her son was shot after he volunteered to Yanez, “Sir, I have to tell you, I do have a firearm on me.”
“He didn’t deserve to die the way he did,” Philando Castile’s sister, Allysza, said, through tears. “I will never have faith in the system.”
Thousands gather, march
Thousands of people gathered Friday evening at the nearby state Capitol to protest the verdict, and began a march that organizers said was headed for the St. Paul Cathedral. The mixed-race crowd, including many people with children, carried signs that read “Unite for Philando” and “Corrupt systems only corrupt.”
The protest was peaceful as darkness fell, but a smaller group splintered off and walked down an entrance ramp to block Interstate 94, quickly snarling traffic and leading to the freeway's shutdown in both directions.
A police line confronted marchers down the highway, but after a standoff of more than 90 minutes, the group dwindled and appeared to largely clear the interstate without police using force.
City officials in St. Anthony said they would offer Yanez a “voluntary separation” because they had concluded “the public will be best served” if he is no longer an officer there.
Jurors deliberated for about 29 hours over five days before reaching the verdict. Prosecutors argued that Yanez had overreacted and that Castile, a school cafeteria worker, was not a threat. Yanez, who is Latino, testified that Castile was pulling his gun out of his pocket despite his commands not to do so. The defense also argued Castile was high on marijuana and said that affected his actions.
Yanez stared ahead with no reaction as the verdict was read. Afterward, one of his attorneys, Tom Kelly, said the defense was satisfied.
“We were confident in our client. We felt all along his conduct was justified. However that doesn’t take away from the tragedy of the event,” Kelly said.
Prosecutor: verdict painful, must be respected
Prosecutor John Choi, who made the decision to charge Yanez, said he knows the acquittal is painful for many people, but that the verdict “must be respected.”
“I don’t doubt that Officer Yanez is a decent person, but he made a horrible mistake from our perspective, and that’s what this case was about. I know that if he could, he would take back what he did, and we all wish, and he would too, that this never happened,” Choi said.
Castile’s shooting was among a string of killings of blacks by police around the U.S. The livestreaming of its aftermath by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the car with her then-4-year-old daughter, attracted even more attention. The public outcry included protests in Minnesota that shut down highways and surrounded the governor’s mansion. Castile’s family claimed he was profiled because of his race, and the shooting renewed concerns about how police officers interact with minorities.
In reaction to the verdict, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton offered his condolences to the Castile family, calling his death “a terrible tragedy” in a statement that made no mention of Yanez. Dayton drew criticism in the days after the shooting for suggesting that Castile might not have been shot if he was white.
The evidence included squad car video, but its wide view didn’t capture exactly what happened inside the car, leaving jurors to essentially decide whether they believed Yanez when he said Castile had his hand on the gun. Prosecutors questioned whether Yanez had even seen it, and witnesses testified that it was in a pocket of Castile’s shorts when paramedics pulled him from the car.
Jury struggled with case
Juror Dennis Ploussard said the jury was split 10-2 early this week in favor of acquittal. They spent a lot of time dissecting the “culpable negligence” requirement for conviction, and the last two holdouts eventually agreed Friday on acquittal.
“We struggled with it. I struggled with it. It was very, very hard,” Ploussard said, adding that he thought the jury delivered the right verdict.
Prosecutors argued that Yanez could have taken lesser steps, such as asking to see Castile’s hands or asking where the gun was.
Reynolds testified that she began recording the shooting’s aftermath because she feared for her life and wanted to make sure the truth was known. Defense attorneys pointed to inconsistencies in several of her statements.