Jury begins deliberating charges brought against officer who fatally shot Philando Castile
- PAUL — A nervous cop too quick to pull the trigger after he heard the word “firearm” from a man he unreasonably suspected may have been involved in an armed robbery.
A police officer who justifiably fell back on his use-of-force training when his life was placed in jeopardy by a driver who ignored orders not to grab for his gun.
Those were the pictures the prosecution and defense painted Monday, June 12, in the manslaughter trial of St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez in their final arguments before a Ramsey County jury.
The jury began deliberations in the case about 1 p.m. and continued until 4:30 p.m. It did not reach a verdict and will resume Tuesday morning.
Yanez failed to control his own traffic stop when he pulled over Castile for a broken taillight the evening of July 6 in Falcon Heights, state prosecuting attorney Jeffrey Paulsen argued during his closing remarks.
Yanez didn’t give clear commands about what he wanted Castile to do after the 32-year-old black man disclosed he was carrying a firearm that night. And he didn’t listen when Castile tried to explain to him that he wasn’t trying to access it, Paulsen said.
“We all know what happens next. (Yanez) pulls out his gun and without warning, without saying ‘Stop, or I’ll shoot,’ he fires seven rounds into that car,” Paulsen told the jury. “He killed Philando Castile and endangered the lives of Diamond Reynolds and (her 4-year-old daughter). … And (Yanez) says, ‘I was nervous,’ but everyone in this case agrees that is not a justifiable use of deadly force.”
Not so, said defense attorney Earl Gray.
Gray argued it was Castile’s reckless decision-making that left the officer with no choice but to shoot him.
Had it not been for Castile’s decision to “get stoned” on marijuana before operating a vehicle while armed with a gun, and further his decision to “ignore” Yanez’s commands not to reach for his firearm, “none of this would have happened,” Gray told jurors.
“The only option (Yanez had) was to pull his gun out and stop the threat (he faced) of death or great bodily harm,” Gray said. “We have proven beyond all doubt that officer Yanez’s conduct was reasonable.”Fatal traffic stop
Yanez is the first officer in modern Minnesota history to be charged in an on-duty shooting.
The 29-year-old, who is Latino, faces one count of second-degree manslaughter in Castile’s death and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm for endangering the lives of Reynolds and her young daughter, who were in the car when Yanez opened fire during a traffic stop. Yanez has pleaded not guilty.
The shooting took place shortly after Yanez had alerted one of his partners, Joseph Kauser, that Castile looked like a suspect in an unsolved armed robbery case.
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.
Video from Yanez’s squad car dashboard camera showed that he approached the driver’s window while Kauser went to the passenger side. Yanez told Castile of the defective taillight.
Yanez then asked to his see driver’s license and proof of insurance. Castile handed over his insurance card and 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. Reynolds was also overheard telling Yanez that Castile wasn’t trying to access his gun.
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 did not tell that to Yanez before the shooting took place. Castile’s gun permit and driver’s license were later found in his wallet.
Witness testimony about the location of Yanez’s gun varied, with it either being found hanging from his pocket, deep in his pocket or having fallen out of his pocket entirely when he was moved by paramedics.Prosecution closing
On Monday, Paulsen carefully walked the jury through key factors he said make up the state’s case.
First, he said it didn’t make sense for Yanez to have perceived Castile as a threat based solely on his marginal resemblance to a suspect in an armed robbery. Second, Paulsen said any lingering suspicion should have been discarded as soon as he saw Castile wearing a seat belt with a woman and child in his car.
“This was just a guy going home from the grocery store,” Paulsen said.
Castile went above and beyond the demands of the law when he disclosed to Yanez that he had a firearm on him, he said. If Yanez had any concerns about that, the officer should have given clear commands for Castile to remain still or keep his hands on the steering wheel, as officers are trained to do in such situations, Paulsen said.
Instead, Yanez gave confusing orders to “stop reaching for it” after asking Castile to produce his driver’s license, Paulsen said.
It’s the officer’s responsibility to create “time and space” in a potentially escalating situation, not jump to the far end of the use-of-force spectrum and start shooting, he said.
“You don’t use deadly force as your very first option simply because you are nervous,” Paulsen said.
He also stated that Castile had no motive to shoot. For all he knew, he was being pulled over for nothing more than a broken taillight.
“Is he going to pull out his gun when he’s wearing a seat belt with his family and he knows there are two armed officers outside his car? … It doesn’t make any sense,” Paulsen said.
He asked the jury to consider why Yanez never specifically told anyone at the scene that he saw a gun and danced around what he saw in his first statement about the incident to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Instead, Yanez said things such as: “it looked like,” “(Castile) had his hand in a C-type shape around something” and “he had his grip around something a lot wider than a wallet,” to describe what he saw. He also told an officer at the scene he didn’t know where the gun was.
“Is that what you would say if you had actually seen a gun and actually seen (someone) pull it on you?” Paulsen asked the jury. “You would never say that.”
He added that Yanez was reckless when he opened fire into a car with innocent passengers in it. BCA agents testified that one bullet struck the car’s armrest, near where Reynolds was sitting. Another struck the back seat, about 16 inches from the child’s car seat.
Paulsen also pointed to autopsy evidence about a gunshot wound to what would have been Castile’s trigger finger — and that there was no corresponding injury in the area of Castile’s right front shorts pocket, where he carried his gun. The defense says that Castile’s hand might simply have moved by the time it was shot.
He asked the jury to return guilty verdicts on all three counts.Defense closing
Gray sometimes shouted as he mad his closing remarks to the jury. He came down hard on prosecutors for what he described as their “unfair” legal strategy.
He said state attorneys had taken Yanez’s statements out of context by selectively choosing to only share portions of them with jurors and for further feigning that it wasn’t clear what Yanez was talking about when he used words such as “something” and “it.”
“He’s referring to the gun. What else could he be talking about?” Gray asked the jury.
If he hadn’t seen it, how else could Yanez have described it as “dark” and having a “flat top” to investigators. Yanez also was able to correctly pinpoint its location in Castile’s front right pocket, Gray told the jury.
Those details, Gray said, provide corroboration that Yanez is telling the truth about seeing Castile’s gun in his hand before the officer shot him.
Gray also attacked Reynolds’ account of what happened, sarcastically referring to Castile’s girlfriend as a “truth-teller.”
He said the woman, who used her cellphone to live-stream the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook, lied on the witness stand about being deprived of food and water when investigators questioned her about the shooting.
Other details, such as her claim that Castile had his hands up when he was shot, also were untruthful, Gray told the jury.
He asked jurors to compare her credibility to Yanez’s, whom he described as a hardworking officer with a track record of honesty.
The only reason he fired his gun that night, Gray argued, was because Castile, who the defense claims was high at the time, ignored his orders to stop reaching for his gun.
THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — was found in Castile’s system after his death. Toxicologists who testified for both sides disagreed about whether THC levels found in postmortem blood samples can accurately ascertain when a person last used marijuana.
Yanez said he could smell burnt marijuana when he approached the car, though his partner, Joseph Kauser, said he couldn’t detect the odor.
Castile was further negligent by first telling Yanez he had a firearm instead of mentioning a legal permit to carry a firearm, Gray argued.
He also reminded jurors that Yanez thought the driver could have been involved in an armed robbery.
“That’s what’s in Yanez’s head (at the time),” Gray told the jury. “(Castile’s) not following orders. … He’s got a gun. He might be a robber. He smells marijuana.”
When he finally saw the gun in Castile’s hand, he had no choice but to shoot until “the threat … was stopped,” Gray said.
The decision was within the bounds of his police training and state law, Gray said.
The fact that Castile told the officer he wasn’t reaching for anything is irrelevant, Gray added.
“If a police officer relied on words and not actions, there would be a lot more dead on the street,” Gray said.
After three white alternates were dismissed following closing arguments, the 12-member jury includes two blacks. The rest are white. None is Latino.
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