Minnesota is being thrust into the center of a raging national debate about police shootings of black men this week when a St. Anthony police officer stands trial for the death of Philando Castile.
Castile’s death grabbed the nation’s attention last year when his girlfriend live-streamed the aftermath of the fatal traffic stop on Facebook, allowing millions to watch the chilling video.
Jeronimo Yanez is believed to be the first police officer charged with killing a civilian in modern Minnesota history. The trial is expected to draw intense national scrutiny in the wake of acquittals of police officers who faced similar charges for fatally shooting unarmed black men.
This case is different in significant ways. Yanez is Latino, and Castile had a firearm he told the officer about at the time of the traffic stop; but the stakes remain enormously high as relations between police and the local black community continue to be deeply fractured.
“The typical case is a white cop killing an unarmed, usually black suspect,” said Richard Frase, a professor of criminal law at the University of Minnesota and co-director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. “This is different in both of those very important ways.”
Yanez, 29, goes to trial in Ramsey County District Court on Tuesday on three felony counts in the shooting of Castile, 32, including second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. The last two charges are for endangering Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her daughter, then 4, who were in the car at the time. Reynolds used her cellphone camera to live-stream the moments after the shooting.
Yanez’s attorneys have said he acted in self-defense.
Many similar cases across the country involved unarmed victims, including the 2015 fatal shooting of Jamar Clark by Minneapolis police, who were ultimately cleared in Clark’s death.
The recent acquittal of a Tulsa, Okla., police officer for killing an unarmed motorist and previous officer-involved shootings in which officers have not been charged tempered some local activists’ hopes that the outcome will be different this time.
“That [isn’t] justice to me,” Diane Binns, president of the St. Paul NAACP, said of the Oklahoma case and uncharged shootings. “Dr. King said, ‘I have a dream,’ but the dream hasn’t come yet.”
Reluctance to punish
The evidence in Yanez’s case is different, but a common theme in the prosecution of officers nationwide is that jurors are reluctant to punish officers for doing a dangerous job, said local law professor Joseph Daly, who has arbitrated police firings and discipline cases across the country.
Earlier in May, a Ramsey County jury acquitted St. Paul police officer Michael Soucheray of one count of misdemeanor fifth-degree assault after multiple viewings of squad video allegedly showing him punch a handcuffed, suicidal 14-year-old girl who spat on him. Soucheray claimed self-defense.
“The job of being a police officer is very stressful,” said Daly, an emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “Generally, jurors don’t want to convict police officers who look like they’re doing their job.”
Presence of gun
Another challenge is the presence of Castile’s .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun, which he voluntarily disclosed to Yanez after the officer asked for his proof of insurance and driver’s license. Castile had a permit to carry the weapon.
“Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me,” Castile told Yanez about 9:05 p.m. the night of the encounter.
Yanez interrupted Castile, according to the criminal complaint filed against Yanez.
“OK,” Yanez said as he placed his right hand on the holster of his own gun. “OK, don’t reach for it, then.”
Castile and Reynolds insisted he wasn’t reaching for his gun. Yanez repeated his orders and then fired seven shots at Castile, later telling investigators that Castile ignored his orders and canted his body up as he reached between his right leg and the car’s center console.
“One kind of juror says, ‘Even if [Castile] disobeyed the officer’s command to stop reaching … does he have to die for that?’ ” said Frase, the U law professor. “Another kind of juror is saying, ‘If he won’t stop reaching for his pocket when he just said he had a gun, he’s probably going to pull a gun …’ ”
It remains a point of contention whether Yanez ever saw the weapon — his attorneys said he did; prosecutors said he provided conflicting statements about what he saw.
“It’s harder for the jury to find [Yanez] guilty if they know that the police officer knew that [Castile] had a gun,” Daly said, “because guns are dangerous. … This is not an open and shut case against the cop — that is for sure. I would rather be defending him than prosecuting him based on what I know and what I’ve read.”
Prosecutors have said that Castile was reaching for his wallet when Yanez fired at him. Officers and medics rendering aid to Castile later removed the gun from his right front shorts pocket.
Yanez’s attorneys have argued that only his perception of the events is relevant, not that of Castile, Reynolds or fellow officer Joseph Kauser, who didn’t draw his weapon that night. They haven’t said whether Yanez will testify on the witness stand, but Daly and Frase said his self-defense claim almost necessitates that he testify even though he has a constitutional right to remain silent.
“You almost have to take the stand to get his side of the story,” Daly said, “Because the side of the story that’s going to come across is what’s on this video and what [Reynolds] will say … and she’s not going to say things that are favorable toward [Yanez].”
The trial is scheduled to run three weeks. It’s likely to be several days before a jury is seated and testimony begins.
Defense attorney Lori Traub defended Brian Fitch in 2015 in the killing of Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick — one of the state’s most high-profile cases. She faced some of the same concerns Yanez’s attorneys have expressed about the ability to find impartial jurors as they attempted to move the trial out of the metro. Their motions were repeatedly denied.
“At the end of the day, what everyone’s going to be able to say is it was a good and fair trial,” Traub said. “I wouldn’t want to be a juror. They’re looking at a decision that’s going to affect them for the rest of their lives.
“No one is going to go through this case and come out the way they started.”