The criminal case against St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile will proceed to trial after a judge denied defense attorneys’ attempt to dismiss the charges.
Ramsey County District Judge William H. Leary III heard oral arguments on the issue Wednesday morning, and filed his decision that afternoon, noting that using a victim’s behavior to justify a defendant’s actions isn’t fool-proof. The judge also found that there was enough probable cause to move forward with the case.
Leary wrote that Yanez’s argument that Castile’s behavior clears him of his actions “fails because a victim’s unreasonable conduct is never an absolute defense to a criminal charge.”
Further, he added, evidence in the case as interpreted by prosecutors could be enough for a jury to find Yanez guilty.
The order is not a judgment on the merits of either the defense’s or prosecution’s case, Leary wrote.
Defense attorneys have said that charges against Yanez should be dropped because Castile put himself at risk by allegedly consuming marijuana and disobeying police orders. Prosecutors have argued that Yanez acted unreasonably when he fired on Castile seven times.
An omnibus hearing is scheduled for Feb. 27. One of Yanez’s three attorneys, Earl Gray, said Wednesday afternoon that Yanez would enter not guilty pleas at that time.
“It’s difficult to get a judge to dismiss on probable cause, but this is just the first round,” Gray said, “and we’re quite confident that once this case goes to trial, officer Yanez will be totally exonerated.”
Gray noted that many of the issues the defense raised in its motion for dismissal will be brought up at trial even if they didn’t convince Leary to vacate the charges.
“I can assure you that we’re going to have experts at trial that we’ve already worked with — that have already looked at this — and they will testify without hesitation that what officer Yanez did was clearly reasonable and justified and authorized use of force on his part,” Gray said.
Yanez, 28, a St. Anthony police officer, was charged Nov. 16 in Ramsey County with second-degree manslaughter and two felony counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm for killing Castile, 32, during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights on July 6, and endangering Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year-old daughter, who were in the car at the time.
Defense attorney Paul Engh, who appeared alongside defense attorneys Thomas Kelly and Gray, argued Wednesday morning that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, White v. Pauly, granted Yanez “qualified immunity” to use deadly force.
“What he saw at the window was the threat to his life. …” said Engh. “Officer Yanez shot … as he was trained to do. He didn’t have time to wait and see … nor is he required to fire one shot instead of seven shots.”
In a memorandum filed Feb. 7 supporting their case, the defense quoted the Supreme Court decision, writing that “The reasonableness of an officer’s use of force depends, in part, on whether the officer was in danger at the precise moment he used the force. …”
Engh said that Castile was “stoned” on marijuana and had no legal right to be driving while impaired and in possession of a gun, for which Castile had a permit to carry. Castile also had no right to disobey Yanez’s orders, he said.
The defense has argued that Castile disobeyed Yanez’s orders, and reached for a gun in his shorts pocket as Yanez commanded, “Don’t pull it out.” The prosecution wrongly applied 20/20 hindsight to justify its case, the defense has argued.
Yanez had the right to stop Castile’s car because of a nonworking brake light, the right to further investigate Castile’s identity as a potential suspect in a recent gas station robbery and the right to fire at Castile, Engh told the judge.
“His conduct — the officer’s — is reflected by Mr. Castile’s conduct and cannot be separated one from the other,” Engh said.
Engh offered Leary a copy of the squad car video in support of the defense’s case.
Federal prosecutor Jeffrey Paulsen, who was called to work on the Yanez case alongside Assistant Ramsey County Attorneys Rick Dusterhoft and Clayton Robinson, argued that the circumstances in White v. Pauly did not apply to the Yanez case. In White v. Pauly, he said, an officer arriving at a scene was fired upon and returned fire, killing the shooter.
“That’s the opposite of our case,” Paulsen said. “… Philando Castile was totally cooperative.”
While prosecutors acknowledge that Castile had THC, the chemical responsible for marijuana’s psychological effects, in his system, they dispute the claim that Castile was impaired by it. The prosecution also does not believe that Castile was reaching for his gun.
“We claim he was reaching for his wallet,” Paulsen said.
Yanez asked for Castile’s driver’s license, Paulsen said, which forced Castile to reach into his pocket.
“Where’s the license?” Paulsen asked. “In the wallet. What does the victim have to do to comply with the command? Get the wallet.”
Some key disagreements between the defense and prosecution include: whether Yanez or Castile created the dangerous situation, whether or not Yanez saw a gun before he fired and why Yanez fired when his fellow officer, Joseph Kauser, did not.
Paulsen said Wednesday that Reynolds and Kauser would testify that they did not see a gun.
Several family members and supporters from both sides, including Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, and St. Anthony Police Chief Jon Mangseth attended the hearing.
Yanez entered and left the courtroom through a side door, and could not be reached for comment after the hearing ended about 9:30 a.m.
Castile’s family members and friends were hesitant to say too much for fear it could jeopardize the case.
Castile’s uncle, Tracy Castile, said there was a long road ahead.
“We’ll get there,” he said. “[The hearing] was difficult to listen to, but we’re going to get through.”