The case against police officer Jeronimo Yanez in last year’s fatal shooting of Philando Castile should proceed to trial because evidence supports the criminal charges, and because defense attorneys misconstrued case law in arguing for its dismissal, prosecutors said in a memorandum filed Wednesday.
Questions about Castile’s alleged marijuana use and refusal to obey police commands raised in a defense motion to dismiss the case can only be resolved with a jury trial, the memo said.
Ramsey County District Court Judge William H. Leary III is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the matter Feb. 15, and is expected to issue a decision that same day.
“The State has established sufficient probable cause for the objective aspect of culpable negligence because Defendant’s conduct during the traffic stop culminating in Castile’s death was a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable officer would have observed,” Jeffrey Paulsen, a federal prosecutor working on the case as a special assistant Ramsey County attorney, wrote in the prosecution’s memo. “Any potential negligence by Castile is a question of fact for the jury. Even if Castile was negligent, his negligence was not as a matter of law an intervening, superseding cause of his death.”
Yanez, 28, was charged Nov. 16 in Ramsey County with second-degree manslaughter and two felony counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm in the fatal shooting of Castile, 32, during a July 6 traffic stop in Falcon Heights. Yanez, a St. Anthony police officer, did not appear in court at a scheduling conference Wednesday morning, which is not unusual for such matters.
Yanez’s attorneys filed a motion Dec. 14 to dismiss the case, arguing that Castile was negligent in his own death because he had created “unreasonable risk.” Autopsy results indicated that Castile had high levels of THC in his blood, the chemical responsible for marijuana’s psychological effects, and was “stoned” the day he was killed, the defense said.
“The status of being stoned (in an acute and chronic sense) explains why Mr. Castile, 1) did not follow the repeated directions of Officer Yanez; 2) stared straight ahead and avoided eye-contact; 3) never mentioned that he had a carry permit, but instead said he had a gun; and 4) did not show his hands,” the defense motion said.
The prosecution argued that evidence does not show that Castile intended to harm Yanez, and that instead, he followed the officer’s orders. In addition, they said in their memo, Yanez was “unreasonable” in his belief that Castile matched an armed robbery suspect when he stopped Castile for an apparent brake light problem.
The encounter quickly escalated, and Yanez fired seven shots at Castile as his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year-old daughter watched. The two passengers were endangered by Yanez’s actions, prosecutors allege.
“Although Castile was the same race as the robbery suspects, nothing else tied him to the robbery,” said the prosecution’s memo. “Castile did not attempt to flee and did not engage in any furtive movements when Defendant signaled him to stop … He volunteered to Defendant that he had a firearm in his possession, something an armed robber would be very unlikely to do.”
According to the prosecution’s memo: Yanez’s actions that day don’t support his belief that Castile was the robber. He did not tell dispatch he was stopping the vehicle, did not conduct a “high-risk” stop, did not ask Castile if he was armed and did not warn his fellow officer when Castile volunteered that he had a gun, for which he possessed a legal permit to carry.
“… the record is clear that Castile never pulled the gun on Defendant or even threatened to do so,” the prosecutors wrote. “Defendant admitted in a tape recorded statement minutes after the shooting that he never saw a gun.”
Castile’s hands were in full view when Yanez first approached the car. Castile followed Yanez’s orders by providing proof of insurance. Castile was reaching for his wallet to retrieve his driver’s license when he volunteered that he had a gun in his possession, Reynolds told authorities.
“… despite never seeing a gun, Defendant, without any warning, used deadly force against Castile …,” said the prosecution’s memo. “Defendant’s conduct also easily satisfies the subjective component of an actual conscious disregard of the risk created by his own conduct.”
The defense’s argument that Castile was negligent because of his alleged marijuana use is a “remarkable” position supported by the defense’s incorrect interpretation of case law, argued the prosecution.
“… Minnesota courts repeatedly have affirmed criminal convictions where the victim’s negligent or even illegal actions contributed to their death,” said the prosecution’s memo. “A victim’s negligence is relevant only when it is so great as to constitute an intervening, superseding act that breaks the chain of causation between the defendant’s action and the resulting injury.”
The defense will have until Feb. 8 to file their response to the prosecution’s opposition. The prosecution includes Richard Dusterhoft, the Ramsey County attorney’s criminal division director, and Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Clayton Robinson.
Yanez’s attorneys, Paul Engh, Earl Gray and Tom Kelly, declined to comment after Wednesday’s scheduling conference, which was not attended by family members or friends from either side.
Dusterhoft said that he has not been informed by the defense attorneys of any other possible motions, and that the state has not entered any plea negotiations with them. He declined to comment when asked whether prosecutors would enter plea negotiations at some point in the future.
Yanez’s previous hearing was a Dec. 19 omnibus hearing at which he postponed entering a plea to the charges due to the motion to dismiss. Dusterhoft said Yanez is not expected to enter any pleas at the February hearing.
No other court dates have been scheduled in the case.