Demonstrators packed the Ramsey County attorney's office lobby in St. Paul on Monday, armed with a petition asking a special prosecutor to completely take over the review of the police-involved shooting death of Philando Castile.
The activists, including Castile's uncle, Clarence Castile, asked to meet with Ramsey County Attorney John Choi for a few minutes or, at the very least, to directly hand him the petition signed by more than 7,000 people.
But after about 45 minutes during which his spokesman, Dennis Gerhardstein, failed to placate the group, Choi was a no-show. He eventually sent Assistant County Attorney Rick Dusterhoft, the head of the criminal division, in his place.
Dusterhoft told the approximately two dozen demonstrators that Choi was busy. "He sent me down to receive this from you, and I will make sure he sees it," Dusterhoft said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU), the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change organized Monday's protest as part of an effort to change the long-held practice of county attorneys reviewing evidence in officer-involved shootings.
They and attorney Glenda Hatchett, who represents Castile's mother, had previously asked Choi to turn over the case to a special prosecutor.
Choi tried to compromise by announcing last Friday that he was adding private attorney Don Lewis as a special prosecutor to help the county attorney's office review the case, which remains under investigation by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).
The move was criticized by the NAACP and the ACLU of Minnesota, while Hatchett called it a good "middle ground."
St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez killed Castile, 32, on July 6 during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights.
Gerhardstein said in a written statement that Choi didn't meet with the protesters because "meeting with any public group that is ultimately demanding a prosecution or no prosecution at all when the investigation is not complete would not serve the investigative process well."
The activists disagreed.
"By not coming down today, he showed that he's not willing to be held accountable to the public who elected him," said Tony Williams, a community organizer with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. "That's a problem."
The groups' demands were echoed by a resolution recently passed by the St. Paul Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity Commission.
"We must create systems of accountability and work toward healing the wound created in the Black community by this tragic event," the commission's chair, JaPaul Harris, said in a written statement released Monday.
The commission outlined a series of demands: the appointment of a special prosecutor to review the case, the release of all dash camera video, and bias and de-escalation training for all officers in Minnesota, among others.
A step 'to build trust'
Demonstrators began convening around lunchtime Monday outside Choi's office.
"Now, this is just a small step that County Attorney Choi could take to build trust in a system that has too long failed communities of color," said Teresa Nelson, legal director for the ACLU of Minnesota.
Nelson said that Choi could ask for a special prosecutor or that Gov. Mark Dayton could require Attorney General Lori Swanson's office to investigate, and Swanson could appoint a special prosecutor.
Swanson's spokesman, Ben Wogsland, said the attorney general's office does not have the authority to appoint a special prosecutor.
Dayton's office hinged its response on Hatchett's approval of Choi's plan.
"Governor Dayton understands that there are different views on this matter," said his spokesman, Matt Swenson. He said that in a letter Dayton received last week from Hatchett on behalf of Castile's family, "she expressed that County Attorney Choi's appointment was a 'step in the right direction' and that they 'trust that justice will be served.' "
Clarence Castile spoke at the protest "on behalf of my family" and said they wanted an independent special prosecutor. "We would feel more comfortable with somebody who doesn't have a relationship with Ramsey County," he said.
Castile's mother, Valerie Castile, he said, has an appointment to speak with Lewis to "get her own opinion of him." Gerhardstein confirmed that Choi and Lewis plan to meet with Valerie Castile and Hatchett.
When the BCA investigation is complete, it will be forwarded to Choi's office, which can either send the case to a grand jury for consideration of criminal charges or issue a decision on the matter itself.