The acquittal of St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez on Friday by a jury in St. Paul was hardly surprising. The not-guilty verdicts returned by the jurors at the Ramsey County Courthouse clearing the officer of criminal charges of manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm in the killing last July of vehicle driver Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights was expected by a few sage observers.
They recognized from the outset and during the course of this proceeding the factors favoring acquittal:
• The defense portrayal of marijuana use by Castile and his passenger, along with the presence of the drug in the car.
• Possible bias by jurors against Castile as an African-American man.
• The inability of the prosecution to present a supporting expert witness from here in Minnesota regarding proper police practices, resorting instead to importing a mediocre retired deputy police chief from a midsize city in California, while the defense submitted a more convincing expert with law enforcement experience in two communities in the Twin Cities.
• The formidable team of defense attorneys, led by the estimable Earl Gray, compared with the bungling of the prosecution.
• The credible self-defense claim asserted by Yanez.
• The disinclination of jurors to convict a cop of a felonious homicide charge while carrying out law enforcement duties, especially one with a good record, among other reasons.
But, above all, it was the charges leveled against Yanez that made foreseeing his acquittal a no-brainer. He should not have been tried on a homicide charge, which is very difficult to establish, particularly because of the absence of any unambiguous documentary or video evidence of clear-cut wrongdoing by the officer.
The prosecutors apparently felt compelled to bring the manslaughter charge, perhaps due to concern for the adverse community reaction that would arise from disinclination to bring the most serious plausible charges against the officer.
It’s unfortunate because the prosecutors had a case against Yanez, but they tried the wrong one. He could have been charged with misconduct by a public officer or employee, a misdemeanor offense for acting “in excess of lawful authority,” or intentionally and unlawfully injuring another person. While that charge would not be as serious as the manslaughter and reckless-discharge ones that were unsuccessfully litigated, they would have been easier to pursue and more likely to have resulted in a conviction. Those charges cannot be brought now because the double-jeopardy provisions of the federal and state constitutions bar multiple prosecutions of this kind.
But another charge could still be brought, a federal criminal civil rights charge against Yanez for depriving Castile of his rights — and his life, for that matter — due to race. This pattern occurred in the notorious Rodney King police assault case 25 years ago in Los Angeles, when a federal criminal prosecution yielded convictions against some police officers involved in that brutality incident after all of them were acquitted in a prior state court proceeding. The previous federal authorities may have been reluctant to pursue such a claim against Yanez, who is himself an ethnic minority.
The Trump administration could take a different view, but don’t count on it. To the contrary, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made a point of rolling back initiatives by the Obama administration to restrain police misconduct.
There will be the inevitable settlement of a civil case by Castile’s family members, probably in the high-six- or low-seven-figure range, which would have been much higher with a criminal conviction. The insurer for the respective municipalities, St. Anthony, where Yanez worked, and Falcon Heights, which contracted for his services, is likely to cough up a bundle to pay off the family and bring this catastrophe to a conclusion.
That might be the only type of justice that transpires in this unfortunate and needless tragedy.
Marshall H. Tanick, of Minneapolis, is a constitutional law attorney.