St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez has no chance at a fair trial in Ramsey County in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile, his attorneys argued in court Tuesday.
A change of venue was one of a half dozen motions presented to District Judge William H. Leary III during the one hour hearing, which was attended by Castile's mother and two other family friends. The judge said he hoped to issue his decisions by the end of the week.
Leary denied a defense motion to separate the manslaughter count against Yanez from the other counts that he intentionally endangered passengers in Castile's car when the officer shot him.
But the most contentious arguments during the hearing centered on change of venue, with Leary asking several questions about the defense's reasoning for the request. Attorney Earl Gray cited pretrial publicity, including what he described as biased comments from Gov. Mark Dayton and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. He suggested the trial be moved to Brainerd, Duluth or St. Cloud. Such requests are rarely granted.
"We are just trying to protect our client," Gray said after the hearing. "If you were officer Yanez, would you want your trial here?"
Yanez, 29, was charged Nov. 16 with second-degree manslaughter and two felony counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm in the death of Castile, 32, during a July 6 traffic stop in Falcon Heights. The other two charges filed against Yanez, who is on paid administrative leave, accuse him of endangering Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year-old daughter, who were in the car at the time.
Reynolds broadcast the aftermath live on Facebook, bringing wide attention to Castile's death. Yanez has pleaded not guilty to the charges. A trial is set for May 30.
Valerie Castile, Philando's mother, left quickly after the hearing and declined to comment. Beyond legal debate about the motions, she and others in the full courtroom repeatedly heard one theme: the case boils down to whether Yanez saw a gun before he shot.
"The prosecution's contention is that he didn't have a gun," Gray said. "We say he did. The gun came out of Castile's pocket."
In his response to the defense arguments, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Clayton Robinson didn't deny there has been intense publicity about the case, and that it's easy for anyone to find information on the case if they try.
"If jurors have heard about the case, the true test is if they can set their bias aside and give a fair decision," he said.
Defense: Move is necessary
Leary heard arguments on Feb. 15 from defense attorneys who wanted Yanez's case dismissed altogether, and ruled that afternoon that the case should proceed. But Tuesday's motion hearing featured several complicated issues filed last month.
The judge declined to allow the motion for dismissal of the manslaughter count on grounds that it violated Yanez's constitutional right to due process. Both prosecution and defense also agreed to drop a motion to suppress Yanez's statement to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension the day after the shooting.
Gray argued the change of venue motion by referring to five newspaper articles that he said were biased or inflammatory against Yanez. He took issue with a columnist, quotes from Dayton, Choi and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and a story reporting the concerns of St. Anthony and Falcon Heights over their liability for lawsuit damages over Castile's death.
Robinson countered that the articles did not convict Yanez. "Nowhere in any of the articles does it specifically say that officer Yanez was guilty," he said.
Gray said he recently sent an investigator to Brainerd, and only 10 percent of people interviewed had heard of the Castile case. The prosecution countered that safeguards would be in place to ensure jurors could deliver a fair verdict, even if they had known about the shooting before the trial.
"The governor is quoted saying that Castile wouldn't have been shot if he was white," said Gray. "And Choi said no reasonable officer would have shot Castile. He must have forgotten to read the rules of ethics for prosecutors."
Gray added that the jurors would be intimidated by past riots they had seen in the news and that a not-guilty verdict could lead to criminal activity at their homes. Robinson was quick to point out that there have been no protests at the courthouse during the first two hearings in Yanez's case.
Leary said it was dangerous for Gray to insinuate that the Ramsey County community may commit illegal activity during or after the trial. "The test of the system is to trust jurors when they truthfully say they have no bias," he said. "If we can't find enough jurors for trial, then your motion would be more appropriate."
Staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.