CHICAGO: A Minnesota police officer was acquitted Friday in the shooting of a black motorist whose dying moments were captured on Facebook video in a case that shocked the nation. Jeronimo Yanez, 29, was found not guilty of all three charges he faced in the death of 32-year-old Philando Castile: Second-degree manslaughter and two felony counts of intentional discharge of a dangerous weapon for endangering the safety of Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter.
Both were in the car when the officer shot Castile during a traffic stop on July 6 of last year. After the verdict, Castile’s family reacted with anger outside the courthouse in Saint Paul, Minnesota. An evening protest was planned at the state capitol. “I’m mad as hell right now. Yes, I am,” Castile’s mother Valerie told a group of reporters. “The system continues to fail black people.”
Glenda Hatchett, a lawyer who represented Valerie Castile, said her son had suffered a “tragic, tragic needless death.” “This time we had to get it right,” she said. “This time we had a young man who had no criminal record,” she said. “This time there should have been, in our opinion, a very, very different outcome.” The immediate aftermath of Castile’s shooting was captured on video recorded by Reynolds and broadcast on Facebook Live. In it, Castile can be seen bleeding to death in the driver’s seat.
The footage sparked protests across the United States and further exposed tensions between US police and African Americans. Yanez had initially singled out Castile for a traffic stop because the officer thought he bared a resemblance to a robbery suspect. Castile volunteered that he was legally carrying a gun. He said, “Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me.” The officer asked Castile not to pull out the handgun. But moments later Yanez fired seven shots while Castile was still buckled into his seat. Reynolds, the girlfriend, said Castile had been trying to pull out his wallet.
Yanez said he feared for his safety and thought Castile was reaching for the gun. But Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who filed charges against the officer, declared such fear unreasonable. “He made a horrible mistake,” Choi said after the verdict, referring to the officer. “I know if he could, he would take back what he did,” he said.
Community activists expressed anger and disappointment, while officials appealed for calm. “It was a clear-cut case,” Jaylani Hussein, chief of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said on local TV station KSTP. “It sends a very harsh message that we still have major race issues in this country.”
The mayor of Saint Paul quickly announced a series of community meetings to discuss the verdict. “I urge each of us to move forward in a way that is peaceful and respectful of everyone – residents, demonstrators and police officers alike,” Mayor Christopher Coleman said in a statement. The jury in the case spent approximately 30 hours over five days deliberating, and asked the judge to re-examine the Facebook video and the video from the police car dashboard camera, along with Yanez’s testimony on the stand. The dashcam video has not been made public, pending the outcome of the case.
US prosecutors have found it difficult to make criminal charges stick in police shooting cases. All six Baltimore officers charged over the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, due to spinal cord injuries suffered in the back of a police van, were eventually cleared. Sherrilyn Ifill, who heads the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the acquittal “highlights how difficult it is to prosecute an officer for killing a person”. “This incident seemed so egregious,” she said in a statement, “That we hoped that this time… justice might be served.”
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the state capitol in St Paul on Friday evening, and a series of speakers demanded justice for minorities in the American judicial system and stronger accountability measures for police. Many people waved signs and chanted in unison “stand up, fight back” and “if we don’t get no justice, they don’t get no peace.” After the rally, police said roughly 2,000 people marched peacefully down streets in St Paul, at times blocking traffic at intersections and then on Interstate 94, a major highway. Marchers also blocked commuter trains at one point and chanted “Yanez Guilty”.
An attorney for Yanez, Earl Gray, praised the verdict. “Justice was done,” Gray told Reuters by telephone. “We’re very happy. Yanez was innocent. He was just doing his job.” Shortly after the verdict, the City of St Anthony said Yanez would not return to active duty and that it was negotiating a “voluntary separation agreement” with him. – Agencies