For the first time in connection with more than 150 police-involved deaths in Minnesota over 16 years, an officer will stand trial for actions that caused the death of a civilian — affirming, for many, that justice is not irrevocably tipped to one side.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi had an excruciatingly difficult task: piece through the events of July 6, when an ordinary traffic stop ended in blood and death, and decide whether to indict St. Anthony officer Jeronimo Yanez, who, one minute after stopping Philando Castile’s car, fired seven shots into Castile, killing him. Unlike so many incidents, the aftermath of this one was witnessed by millions because it was livestreamed on Facebook by Castile’s girlfriend.
Choi was careful to offer the reasoning behind his decision. Castile, he said, had no warrants, was respectful and compliant, exhibited no criminal intent, and was heard calmly informing Yanez that he was carrying a gun. Choi said the entire incident was caught on the squad car dash camera, including audio of Castile’s dying words after Yanez had told him not to reach for his gun: “I wasn’t reaching for it.”
It is critical to have the strongest possible evidence in cases that otherwise might come down to the word of an officer against that of a civilian. The Star Tribune Editorial Board has argued before for body cameras, and this case points up the need for the most complete documentation possible when interactions take a turn for the worse.
Choi’s decision is sure to evoke strong emotions on both sides, and it is important to remember that this is the beginning, not the end, of the judicial process. Yanez will have the chance to defend himself in court; the state must prove its case against him.
But there is little question that Choi’s decision marks a watershed moment in Minnesota for those who had lost faith that any officer could be indicted in such an incident, no matter what the circumstances. Nekima Levy-Pounds, former head of the NAACP and a key figure in organizing the protests over the earlier Jamar Clark shooting in Minneapolis (which did not lead to indictments), said she sobbed when she heard of the decision to go to court. “The system has at last shown a willingness for accountability of its officers,” said Levy-Pounds, who also is a Minneapolis mayoral candidate.
No matter what the outcome, this is a tragedy on all sides. One young man is dead, shot in front of his girlfriend and her young daughter, and another’s life may be ruined by what might have been a moment of panic.
This community must continue to do what it can to ensure that such incidents are as rare as possible, with training for officers, technology that can clarify events and a strong commitment to accountability. Police have an extraordinarily difficult and dangerous job, particularly in an era when gun ownership is at an all-time high. The presence of a gun can set off every alarm bell an officer has, transforming even a routine stop into a life-or-death moment. And yet, the responsibility to protect civilian life and safety remains high, as it must.
Choi said that while he gave Yanez “every benefit of the doubt … I cannot allow the death of a motorist who was lawfully carrying a firearm under these facts and circumstances to go unaccounted for.” That is no easy conclusion for a prosecutor who depends on law enforcement.
Now the public must demonstrate patience while the next phase of the legal system examines the evidence and renders a verdict.