In a rare move, the judge presiding over the trial of officer Jeronimo Yanez wrote a letter to jurors who acquitted him in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile, saying he supports them despite widespread public criticism based on what he called “a failure to understand what you were asked to do.”
Ramsey County District Judge William H. Leary III wrote that he wanted to thank the jurors “for the profound public service you provided to this country and the State of Minnesota,” and continued, “I write to re-assure you that you faithfully fulfilled the difficult task you were asked to undertake.”
Leary wrote that he was not providing his own opinion of Yanez’s actions, merely that he wanted to convey to jurors that their verdict “was fully supported by a fair interpretation of the evidence and the law you were obligated to apply.”
The judge’s letter to the jury of five women and seven men, including two people of color, was dated June 23 and filed with the courts on June 28. Although judges regularly address jurors in chambers following the resolution of a case, it’s not common for them to follow up several days later with a letter.
Reached for comment Monday, Leary issued a short statement that said, “I appreciate your interest, but I don’t believe any discussion would be of any additional value.”
Jurors said they were deadlocked in the case 10-2, with two holdouts against acquittal, until the afternoon of their fifth day of deliberations. They eventually acquitted Yanez, 29, on June 16 of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of reckless discharge of a firearm for killing Castile, 32, during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights on July 6.
Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her daughter, then 4, were also in the car. Reynolds broadcast the aftermath live on Facebook, bringing worldwide attention to Castile’s death.
In his letter, Leary broke down the multiple elements of the law prosecutors were required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, including whether Yanez acted with gross negligence and recklessness.
“The state’s failure to prove any of the required elements of the charge required that you, the jury, return a verdict of not guilty,” Leary wrote. “As we discussed when we met shortly after the verdict, I cannot convey my own opinions as to guilt or acquittal, but your verdict was fully supported by a fair interpretation of the evidence and the law you were obligated to apply.”
The verdict sparked a rally at the State Capitol, which gave way to hours of protest on the streets of St. Paul that shut down light rail service and ended with a standoff with authorities on Interstate 94.
“It’s unusual to do a letter after the fact, but there’s nothing inappropriate about this letter,” said Minneapolis defense attorney Joe Tamburino, who was not involved in the case. “I say hats off to him for doing this, because the jury received an inordinate amount of criticism. The issue was whether the state proved its case, not greater social issues.”
Leary sent his letter a few days after the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) released dramatic dashcam footage showing Yanez firing seven shots at Castile in a matter of seconds. Castile was struck five times, including twice in the heart.
“The criticism of the jury’s decision of which I am aware has focused primarily on a reaction to the squad-cam video and on consideration of issues you as jurors were never asked to address,” Leary wrote. “You were never asked to decide whether racism continues to exist, whether certain members of our community are disproportionately affected by police tactics, or whether police training is ineffective.
“You were simply asked to determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether a crime had been committed.”
The BCA released its investigative file of the shooting two weeks ago, including more than 2,000 pages of documents and other videos. Among the videos was one of Reynolds screaming in the back seat of a squad car while her daughter attempted to comfort her.
One of Yanez’s attorneys, Earl Gray, said Monday that he appreciated Leary’s letter. Gray said that when judges meet with jurors in chambers after a verdict, they “always tell them they did the right thing.”
“I thought it was a good letter,” Gray said. “He told the jury they followed the law and did their duty. I’m sure the jurors felt better.”
A message left for a spokesman with the Ramsey County attorney’s office was not immediately returned.
Tamburino and Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said the letter was particularly useful in the Yanez case given its high profile and historic nature. It’s the first time in modern Minnesota history an officer was charged with fatally shooting someone in the line of duty.
‘Very hard to do’
“Most people make decisions based on their feelings,” Daly said. “The jurors are asked to take into account many, many facts and then many laws, and then they are told to take those facts and apply the law. It’s very hard to do.”
In his letter, Leary told jurors that the prosecutors had a high burden to meet in order to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, and that he had “no doubt” that jurors fulfilled their commitment.
Leary concluded his letter with a quote from prominent civil rights leader Malcolm X, as quoted in a book about racism by author Ibrahim X. Kendi: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
“If we are to protect the jury process now and in the future, and if we are to encourage all of us to be willing to serve as jurors,” Leary wrote, “then I would hope that your work will soon be understood for what you were asked to do and respected for what you did do.”