The manslaughter charge levied against St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile will be fought in court by formidable attorneys known for tackling big cases.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi has assembled a team of some of his most seasoned attorneys, while Yanez is being represented by defense lawyers known for courtroom flourish in high-profile cases.
“You’ve got the dream team versus the dream team,” said veteran defense attorney Gary Wolf, who is familiar with the attorneys in the case. “It’s going to be quite a trial.”
Leading the prosecutorial charge is Choi, an analytical and understated figure whose unexpected legal maneuvers have made some critics into fans. It surprised some activists when he announced Wednesday that he was filing three felony counts — second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm — against Yanez for killing Castile during a July 6 traffic stop in Falcon Heights.
In 2015, Choi brought unprecedented criminal and civil cases against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, ensuring that the church’s work to overcome its legacy of child sex abuse would be overseen by a civilian court.
But his reluctance to speak more frequently in the immediate aftermath of big cases has put off some detractors. Choi refused to greet about two dozen activists who packed the lobby of his office in downtown St. Paul on Aug. 1. They demanded an in-person meeting with him so they could hand over a petition asking that a special prosecutor, not Choi, review evidence in the Castile case.
After 45 minutes, Choi sent Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Richard Dusterhoft to address the group.
“By not coming down today, [Choi] showed that he’s not willing to be held accountable to the public who elected him,” activist Tony Williams said during the demonstration. “That’s a problem.”
Those who know Choi say his reticence is part of his deliberate and fair process.
“He’s a thoughtful and analytical kind of guy,” said former St. Paul chief deputy city attorney Jerry Hendrickson, who served as Choi’s second-in-command when Choi was city attorney. “He’s careful.”
Choi’s peers weigh in
Throughout the investigation into Castile’s shooting, Choi referred to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s timeline for reaching a decision in the 2015 death of Jamar Clark, who was fatally shot by Minneapolis police.
Freeman reviewed evidence for seven weeks before deciding earlier this year not to charge the officers involved, Choi reminded the public as many demanded action in Castile’s death.
Seven weeks after Choi’s office received the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s investigation into Castile’s death, he announced the charges against Yanez.
According to the criminal complaint filed against Yanez, he thought Castile, 32, matched the description of a robbery suspect and pulled him over on Larpenteur Avenue. (Authorities have cleared Castile of any involvement in the robbery.) Castile told Yanez he had a gun, for which he had a valid permit to carry.
Yanez fired seven shots at Castile as Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year-old daughter watched.
Asked if Choi sought him out before he decided to charge Yanez, Freeman would only say that “we are good friends and we talked a lot. … But what John did was all his choice.”
Freeman said the legal standard to charge a police officer in a shooting is very difficult, adding that it’s hard to prove an officer wasn’t justified in shooting a person if the officer feels his life is in danger.
As far as any potential backlash from police officers for his decision, Choi’s diligence, thoroughness and decency in the way he presented his reasons for charging Yanez “deserves all of our respect,” Freeman said.
Choi’s predecessor, former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, said she doesn’t expect any repercussions from east metro law enforcement.
“I’m sure it’s difficult for law enforcement to see one of their own facing this charge, but the professionalism … will carry the day,” she said. “They understand that prosecution decisions have to be made based on the facts and not who was the victim of the crime or who perpetrated the crime.”
A prosecution powerhouse
The team Choi has assembled to prosecute Yanez includes Dusterhoft and Assistant County Attorneys Jill Gerber and Clayton Robinson and federal prosecutor Jeffrey Paulsen.
“They don’t miss a thing,” said Wolf, who has gone head-to-head with Dusterhoft and Paulsen several times in murder and drug trials.
Dusterhoft, director of the office’s criminal division, has successfully prosecuted some of the east metro’s biggest murder cases, including the killing of Kira Steger. Last month, he won a conviction against Ryan Petersen in the April killing of law clerk Chase Passauer.
Under Wolf’s representation, Petersen had tried to enter a straight plea to second-degree murder, but Dusterhoft pushed back so Petersen could be indicted on a charge of first-degree murder, for which he is now serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Gerber, the assistant division director of the criminal division, was an early part of the county and city’s joint domestic violence prosecution unit. Her specialties include prosecuting cases of child abuse, child pornography and human trafficking. In 2013, she prosecuted two sex traffickers who were convicted and each sentenced to more than 20 years in prison for victimizing vulnerable teens.
Robinson has served as special assistant Minnesota attorney general and as the St. Paul city attorney. His professional associations and appointments have included the Minnesota Supreme Court’s first racial bias task force and the St. Paul Police Internal Affairs Civilian Review Commission. In October, he won two first-degree murder convictions against one defendant, resulting in two back-to-back sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Paulsen, who was cross-deputized to work on the Yanez case, has been a federal prosecutor since 1988. In the late 1990s, he prosecuted gang leader Robert “Buster” Jefferson in the firebombing of a St. Paul home that killed five children. In 2006, he served as a special assistant Ramsey County attorney and successfully prosecuted two men for the 1970 ambush killing of St. Paul police officer James Sackett.
‘The perfect counterweight’
Yanez’s legal team — Paul Engh, Earl Gray and Thomas Kelly — have had their own share of high-profile cases. Engh is representing one of five former executives accused of stealing $20 million from Starkey Hearing Technologies. Kelly represented former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho after his airport bathroom arrest. Gray successfully defended former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper against allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior on a boat.
“You have the perfect counterweight to the prosecution’s team,” Wolf said. “You’ve got a lot of talent on both sides. Really hard-charging, outstanding lawyers.”
Staff writer David Chanen contributed to this report.