Officer acquitted in Castile shooting; hundreds protest

FILE - This Jan. 8, 2013, file photo provided by Christian Dobratz shows St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez outside the city council chambers in St. Anthony, Minn. Prosecutors announced Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016, that Yanez, the officer who fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop on July 6, 2016, in Falcon Heights, Minn., has been charged with second-degree manslaughter in the killing. (Christian Dobratz via AP, File)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota police officer was cleared Friday in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile, a black motorist whose death captured national attention when his girlfriend streamed the grim aftermath on Facebook.

Castile’s family stormed out of the courtroom after the verdict was read, and the city of St. Anthony swiftly announced plans to dismiss Officer Jeronimo Yanez, despite his acquittal. Yanez was charged with manslaughter in the death of Castile, a 32-year-old school cafeteria worker, during a July 6 traffic stop that turned deadly seconds after Castile alerted the officer that he was carrying a gun. Castile had a permit for the weapon.

“The fact in this matter is that my son was murdered, and I’ll continue to say murdered, because where in this planet (can you) tell the truth, and you be honest, and you still be murdered by the police of Minnesota,” his mother, Valerie Castile, said, referring to the fact that her son was shot after he volunteered to Yanez, “Sir, I have to tell you, I do have a firearm on me.”

“He didn’t deserve to die the way he did,” Philando Castile’s sister, Allysza, said, through tears. “I will never have faith in the system.”

A few hundred people gathered Friday evening at the nearby state Capitol to protest the verdict. The mixed-race crowd, including many people with children, carried signs that read “Unite for Philando” and “Corrupt systems only corrupt.”

John Thompson, who worked with Castile in St. Paul’s public schools, stirred the crowd with profanity-laden remarks screamed into a microphone.

“You all murdered my friend and got away with it!” he shouted. “He got away with murder!”

City officials in St. Anthony said they would offer Yanez a “voluntary separation” because they had concluded “the public will be best served” if he is no longer an officer there.

Jurors deliberated for about 29 hours over five days before reaching the verdict. Prosecutors argued that Yanez had overreacted and that Castile, a school cafeteria worker, was not a threat. Yanez, who is Latino, testified that Castile was pulling his gun out of his pocket despite his commands not to do so. The defense also argued Castile was high on marijuana and said that affected his actions.

Yanez stared ahead with no reaction as the verdict was read. Afterward, one of his attorneys, Tom Kelly, said the defense was “satisfied.”

“We were confident in our client. We felt all along his conduct was justified. However that doesn’t take away from the tragedy of the event,” Kelly said.

Prosecutor John Choi, who made the decision to charge Yanez, said he knows the acquittal is painful for many people, but that the verdict “must be respected.”

“I don’t doubt that Officer Yanez is a decent person, but he made a horrible mistake from our perspective, and that’s what this case was about. I know that if he could, he would take back what he did, and we all wish, and he would too, that this never happened,” Choi said.

Castile’s shooting was among a string of killings of blacks by police around the U.S., including two other cases on trial this week in Ohio and Wisconsin. The livestreaming of its aftermath by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the car with her then-4-year-old daughter, attracted even more attention. The public outcry included protests in Minnesota that shut down highways and surrounded the governor’s mansion. Castile’s family claimed he was profiled because of his race, and the shooting renewed concerns about how police officers interact with minorities.

In reaction to the verdict, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton offered his condolences to the Castile family, calling his death “a terrible tragedy” in a statement that made no mention of Yanez. Dayton drew criticism in the days after the shooting for suggesting that Castile might not have been shot if he was white.

The evidence included squad car video, but its wide view didn’t capture exactly what happened inside the car — leaving jurors to essentially decide whether they believed Yanez when he said Castile had his hand on the gun. Prosecutors questioned whether Yanez had even seen it, and witnesses testified that it was in a pocket of Castile’s shorts when paramedics pulled him from the car.

Juror Dennis Ploussard said the jury was split 10-2 early this week in favor of acquittal. They spent a lot of time dissecting the “culpable negligence” requirement for conviction, and the last two holdouts eventually agreed Friday on acquittal. He declined to say whether he thought Yanez acted appropriately, but said the jury sympathizes with the Castile family.

“We struggled with it. I struggled with it. It was very, very hard,” Ploussard said, adding that he thought the jury delivered the right verdict.

He would not identify the two early holdouts, but said they were not the jury’s only two black members. The rest of the jurors were white. None was Latino.

Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, though sentencing guidelines suggested around four years would have been more likely. Yanez was also cleared of lesser counts related to endangering Castile’s girlfriend and her daughter for firing his gun into the car near them.

Yanez testified that he stopped Castile in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights because he thought he looked like one of two men who had robbed a nearby convenience store a few days earlier. Castile’s car had a faulty brake light, giving the 29-year-old officer reason to pull him over, several experts testified.

The squad-car video shows Yanez approaching Castile’s car and asking for a driver’s license and proof of insurance. Castile appears to give something to Yanez through the driver’s side window. Castile then informs the officer he’s carrying a weapon, but before he finishes his sentence, Yanez has his hand on his own gun and is pulling it out of the holster. There is shouting, and Yanez screams, “Don’t pull it out!” before he fires seven shots into the car, five of which hit Castile. Prosecutors say Castile’s last words were: “I wasn’t reaching for it.”

After shooting Castile, Yanez is heard on the squad-car video telling a supervisor that he didn’t know where Castile’s gun was, then that he told Castile to get his hand off it. Yanez testified that he meant that he didn’t see the gun at first, then saw it in Castile’s “right thigh area.” He said Castile ignored his commands to stop pulling it out of his pocket. Yanez’s voice choked with emotion as he talked of being “scared to death” and thinking of his wife and baby daughter in the split-second before he fired.

Prosecutors argued that Yanez could have taken lesser steps, such as asking to see Castile’s hands or asking where the gun was.

Reynolds testified that she began recording the shooting’s aftermath because she feared for her life and wanted to make sure the truth was known. Defense attorneys pointed to inconsistencies in several of her statements.

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