Shocking video of police shooting wasn’t enough to convict

Published 7:22 pm Wednesday, June 21, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — The release of dashboard video in the shooting death of Philando Castile renewed anger over his death and reopened an emotional question: How could the police officer who shot him have been acquitted?

But even with the shocking squad-car footage, prosecutors faced a challenge because no video showed exactly what happened inside Castile’s car. That left plenty of room for reasonable doubt.

The dashboard video made public for the first time Tuesday showed events that had been described many times since Castile was killed by Officer Jeronimo Yanez nearly a year ago. For many viewers, the graphic scene of gunfire striking a black driver during a seemingly simple traffic stop served only to make last week’s verdict harder to understand.

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Yanez was the first of two police officers to be acquitted in a killing in less than a week. A jury on Wednesday found a former police officer not guilty of first-degree reckless homicide charges in the on-duty shooting of a black man last year that ignited riots in Milwaukee.

The only two jurors who have spoken publicly about the Minnesota case acknowledged the impact of the video, which they saw during the trial. But they said prosecutors failed to prove that Yanez acted with “culpable negligence,” the legal standard needed to support a conviction for second-degree manslaughter in Minnesota.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the jury would have to conclude that no reasonable officer would have acted as Yanez did under the same circumstances, said local defense attorney Joe Tamburino, who was not involved in the case.

The video showed the Latino officer politely telling Castile that his brake light was out. After Castile handed over his insurance card, he calmly said, “Sir, I have to tell you, I do have a firearm on me.”

Before Castile finished that sentence, the Latino officer, who testified that he thought Castile looked like a suspect in a robbery a few days earlier, began pulling his weapon out of its holster.

With his voice initially composed, Yanez said: “OK. Don’t reach for it then,” but then the stress in his voice grew as he ordered, “Don’t pull it out” before suddenly firing seven shots into the car, which also held Castile’s girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter.

The case came to national attention in large part because the girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, streamed the scene from the passenger seat on Facebook immediately after Castile was hit.

Castile and Reynolds both told the officer that Castile was not reaching for his gun. Before he was shot, Castile said “I’m not pulling it out.” And his last words, after the shooting, were “I wasn’t reaching …” Reynolds later said Castile was reaching for his wallet.

Taken from a distance, the dashboard video does not show what happened inside the car during the crucial seven seconds from when Castile said he had a gun to when Yanez fired his final shot.

Yanez, 29, testified that he believed he saw Castile, 32, going for his gun, and that he saw the gun itself. Prosecutors contended that the officer never saw the gun because it remained in Castile’s pocket until paramedics removed him from his car.

Juror Dennis Ploussard told The Associated Press that the jury favored acquittal early by a 10-2 vote. He said the panel spent a lot of time dissecting the meaning of the “culpable negligence” standard until the two holdouts eventually agreed Friday on acquittal.

Juror Bonita Schultz told Minneapolis television station KARE and the Star Tribune that their big question came down to the part nobody could see on the video — whether Castile went for his gun.

She said the state did not prove that Yanez was being dishonest about seeing a gun. The jury, she said, also gave a lot of credibility to a use-of-force expert called by the defense who testified in detail about why he believed Yanez acted reasonably under the circumstances.

Some outside attorneys say the prosecution made a tactical mistake when it failed to introduce Yanez’s interview with two state investigators the day after the shooting.

While jurors heard quite a bit about the interview, prosecutors waited until cross-examining Yanez before they tried to introduce the full audio. Judge William Leary III ruled that it was too late. Jurors were obviously interested in what Yanez said because they asked the judge during deliberations for the transcript. He rejected that request because new evidence cannot be admitted after a case goes to the jury.

It’s not clear how having the full interview might have swayed any juror’s decision. Yanez’s statements to investigators were broadly consistent with testimony he gave on the stand, though prosecutors tried to show discrepancies. Prosecutors later said they got to read from the transcript to show he made conflicting statements, thus impeaching his testimony, just not in the manner they originally intended.

The dashboard video and the interview were part of a larger package of videos, audio recordings and other case evidence released Wednesday. One document showed that jurors agreed quickly to acquit Yanez on two lesser charges of endangering Castile’s girlfriend and daughter and got stuck only on the manslaughter charge.

Marsh Halberg, another local defense attorney who was not involved in the case, and Tamburino both agreed there were no other lesser charges that prosecutors should have filed that might have carried a better chance of conviction. Any lesser charges, Halberg said, might have helped the defense by giving jurors an excuse to avoid finding the officer guilty of the most serious count.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi was not available for an interview Thursday, a spokeswoman said. But his office issued a statement calling it “unconscionable and contrary to the pursuit of justice” to suggest that the case should have been charged as a lesser crime.

At a news conference Friday, Choi said prosecutors gave it their best shot. “As hard as this is for some members of our community,” he said, “we have to accept this verdict.”