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'I didn’t want to shoot Mr. Castile,’ Yanez says in emotional testimony

ST. PAUL -- St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez had tears in his eyes as he described to the jury what ran through his mind in the seconds after he says he saw Philando Castile’s handgun emerge from near his right pocket during a traffic stop last summer.

“I was scared to death. I thought I was going to die,” Yanez testified in Ramsey County District Court on Friday. “My family was popping up in my head. My wife. My baby girl.”

Dressed in a dark gray suit, Yanez’s voice sometimes shook as he recounted what prompted him to fatally shoot the 32-year-old black man less than a minute after pulling him over for a broken taillight in Falcon Heights on the evening of July 6.

At times, the 29-year-old Latino man wiped his eyes with a tissue as defense attorney Tom Kelly asked him questions.

He told the jury that Castile stared straight ahead and had “total disregard” for the officer’s commands to stop reaching for the firearm Castile had just seconds before disclosed he was carrying in the car. When he finally saw the top of Castile’s pistol appear near his “right thigh area,” Yanez said he had to act.

“I was able to see the firearm in Mr. Castile’s hand, and that’s when I engaged him,” Yanez told the jury. “I had no other choice … I didn’t want to shoot Mr. Castile. Those were not my intentions.”

Yanez took the witness stand on the fifth day of testimony in his manslaughter trial. He was one of the last witnesses called by the defense Friday and news media from across the country packed the courtroom to listen to his account of the shooting.

Yanez’s wife and parents watched from the front row of the gallery. Castile’s family, including his mother, were also present.

The police officer is the first in modern Minnesota history to be charged in an on-duty shooting. He faces one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm for endangering the lives of Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year-old daughter when he fired seven bullets into the car.

Reynolds pulled out her cellphone and began live-streaming the shooting’s aftermath on Facebook as Castile bled to death.

Her video went viral, sparking protests both locally and nationally about police use of force, particularly against black men.

The night of the shooting, Yanez radioed his police partner Joseph Kauser shortly before 9 p.m. to let him know that he had just spotted a driver who resembled one of the suspects in an armed robbery that Yanez had responded to four days earlier. He said the driver “looks more like one of our suspects just because of the wide-set nose,’ according to audio of the radio transmission.

After following Castile in his marked squad car for two miles, Yanez discovered Castile had a broken taillight and used the traffic violation as a reason to pull him over to investigate further.

Video from Yanez’s squad car dashboard camera showed that he approached the driver’s window while Kauser went to the passenger side and told Castile of his defective taillight. He then asked to his see driver’s license and proof of insurance. Castile handed over his insurance card and then told Yanez, “Sir, I do have to tell you, I do have a firearm on me.”

Yanez responded, “OK, don’t reach for it then,” followed by, “Don’t pull it out,” according to the squad car recording.

“I’m not reaching for it,” Castile responded.

Seconds later, Yanez opened fire into the vehicle, fatally wounding Castile, who worked as a St. Paul elementary school cafeteria supervisor.

Castile had a permit to carry the gun but he never told that to Yanez.

The state maintains that Castile was trying to access his wallet to comply with Yanez’s request to produce his driver’s license when the officer recklessly shot him.

Yanez has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The video of the shooting was played several times throughout the trial. In it, Kauser is seen moving away from the car once he hears gunfire. He testified that he was “surprised” when shots were fired but that didn’t have Yanez’s vantage of Castile and trusted his judgment.

Yanez spent more than two hours on the witness stand. He endured intense questioning from Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Richard Dusterhoft during cross-examination.

Dusterhoft questioned the accuracy of Yanez’s perception that night as well as inconsistencies in the various statements he made to authorities about what happened.

He pointed out that Yanez initially told a supervisor who interviewed him at the scene that he didn’t know where the gun was and that he told state law enforcement agents that he saw the barrel of the gun.

“The only way you see a barrel is if you see the tip of the gun, and you said it twice. … You know what a barrel is, right?” Dusterhoft said.

“Correct, but what I meant to say was (I saw) the (back portion) of the slide,” Yanez said, adding he was under a lot of stress and exhausted when he gave his statement to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

As for his initial remarks at the scene, Yanez said he meant that he just didn’t know where Castile’s gun was when he first mentioned he had a firearm.

Dusterhoft also took issue with Yanez’s perception of Castile as a possible robbery suspect based on scant similarities, and particularly after Yanez discovered he had a female passenger and small child in the car with him.

He also questioned why he failed to give Castile clear commands, such as “don’t move,” or telling him to keep his hands on the steering wheel as officers are trained to do when they learn a driver has a firearm, especially if they become concerned about the person’s movement.

Dusterhoft said Yanez essentially seemed to dance around what he saw Castile reaching for that night, often choosing phrases in statements to authorities such as “it appeared,” “it looked like” and “I thought it was” to describe what he saw.

“You didn’t say (Castile) grabbed a gun,” Dusterhoft said. “You appear to be unsure of what you saw.’

“No, I’m sure,” Yanez replied.

“Then why did you say, ‘I thought,’” Dusterhoft asked.

“I’m not sure,” Yanez replied before repeating that his statement was given shortly after experiencing a traumatic incident.

Dusterhoft also asked why Yanez failed to tell the officers who responded to the scene about the presence of a gun in the car as police typically do to ensure everyone’s safety. Yanez said it was implied.

In addition to Yanez and Kauser, Reynolds, various law enforcement officials who responded to the shooting and experts on use of force and toxicology testified during the week of testimony.

Part of Yanez’s defense was highlighting that THC  — the active chemical in marijuana — had been found in Castile’s system after his death; therefore, Castile was high during the traffic stop and culpable for his fate.

Various toxicology experts called by the state and defense differed on whether postmortem blood samples can accurately indicate recent marijuana use.

Other witnesses testified about where Castile’s gun was found after he was removed from the car, either hanging from a pocket, falling out of a pocket and hitting the ground or deep in a pocket. Others were asked to weigh in on Yanez’s decision not to radio his traffic stop into dispatch if he suspected an armed robber might be in the car.

Reynolds testified that Castile had been trying to unbuckle his seat belt to get his wallet when Yanez shot him. The wallet, with Castile’s driver’s license and gun permit, was found in a pocket at the hospital, but medical staff couldn’t specify which one. The defense cross-examined Reynolds at length, pointing out inconsistencies in her own statements to police about the incident.

Both the prosecution and defense also called use-of-force experts to testify on behalf of their side. The one who testified for the state said Yanez was negligent throughout the traffic stop. He called his decision to shoot “unreasonable” and “excessive.”

A police officer’s use of force is justified if a reasonable officer in the same circumstances would have also perceived a threat of great bodily harm or death to him or herself or others.

Two experts who testified for the state said Yanez acted according to his training throughout the traffic stop and that his actions were both reasonable and necessary to preserve his life that night.

Several character witnesses also testified. Many were for the defense.

Closing statements by the prosecution and defense are scheduled for Monday, and then the case will be placed in the hands of the jury. Nine men and six women, with two persons of color, were seated for the trial. Only 12 will deliberate, with three serving as alternates.

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