In killing by police, a jury sees what the dash camera saw
Officer Jeronimo Yanez, second from left, with his lawyers outside the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul last week. He is being tried on a charge of second-degree manslaughter. (Photo by David Joles/Star Tribune)
ST. PAUL, MN — The fatal shooting of a Black motorist by a police officer just outside this city drew national attention last summer largely because the driver’s girlfriend began livestreaming the graphic scene on Facebook moments after it happened. On Monday, as prosecutors began outlining their case against the officer, they presented a different video for the first time in public: dashboard camera footage of the shooting itself.
The footage, which prosecutors had previously described in court filings, left unclear important parts of the encounter between Philando Castile, the motorist, and Officer Jeronimo Yanez. But it showed the speed with which a cordial conversation deteriorated into gunfire, and seemed to capture Mr. Castile trying to allay the officer’s fear about a gun he had with him. Prosecutors said Mr. Castile gasped to say, “I wasn’t reaching for it,” after the shots were fired, but the audio was hard to make out in a packed courtroom where the newly released footage was shown only once.
As prosecutors show a greater willingness to charge police officers involved in questionable shootings, a series of trials has renewed debate about how the police use force and treat African Americans. But even in cases like this one, with lots of video evidence, convictions are far from assured, and jurors often sympathize with officers who say they had to make a life-or-death decision in seconds.
Officer Yanez is being tried as a former University of Cincinnati police officer prepares to face a jury about 700 miles away in a different fatal shooting of a Black motorist during a traffic stop. And a former Milwaukee police officer will be tried next week on a charge of reckless homicide in another death.
Here is some of what we are expecting as jurors hear evidence about Mr. Castile’s death.
Videos have become Exhibit No. 1
Video — whether from a cell-phone, a body camera or a dash camera — has transformed public perceptions of police shootings.
The shooting of Mr. Castile provoked outrage almost immediately because Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, streamed the aftermath on Facebook. Ms. Reynolds, who was in the car with Mr. Castile and her young daughter, calmly challenged Officer Yanez’s version of events and said Mr. Castile had been trying to cooperate when he was shot.
The newly released video — recorded on Officer Yanez’s cruiser behind Mr. Castile’s car — showed an exchange that lasted only a matter of seconds. The camera’s view did not show whether Mr. Castile was reaching for the handgun that he had a permit to carry or exactly where the gun was in the car.
On the video, Officer Yanez and Mr. Castile briefly discussed a broken taillight before Mr. Castile mentioned that he had a gun in the car. Officer Yanez responded, calmly at first, instructing him not to reach for the weapon. Mr. Castile started to respond, but Officer Yanez interjected, his voice louder.
Officer Yanez could be heard on the video yelling, “Don’t pull it out!” Seconds later, he started shooting, seven shots directly into the car through the open driver’s window. When the gun-shots stopped, after bullets narrowly missed Ms. Reynolds and her daughter, Officer Yanez kept his gun pointed, grew emotional and began swearing.
Defense lawyers claimed that Mr. Castile was grasping for his gun, that Officer Yanez feared for his life and that he was following his training. Prosecutors said that Mr. Castile was not reaching for the gun, which they have said was in his pocket, and that Officer Yanez had committed second-degree manslaughter.
In an opening statement on Monday, Richard Dusterhoft, a prosecutor, told jurors that Officer Yanez could have eased his own concerns after Mr. Castile mentioned a gun.
“He didn’t tell Mr. Castile to freeze,” Mr. Dusterhoft said. “He didn’t tell him to put his hands up.”
What would a ‘reasonable’ officer have thought?
Officer Yanez’s trial is the first time in modern Minnesota history that an officer has been charged for an on-duty fatal shooting, according to reports by local news organizations.
The jurors, nine men and six women, two of them Black, must determine whether Officer Yanez acted reasonably given what he knew at the time. Paul Engh, a defense lawyer, told jurors on Monday that the case was all about Mr. Castile’s gun.
“But for Mr. Castile’s continuous grip on that handgun, you would not be here,” said Mr. Engh, who called the shooting a “tragedy” but “most assuredly not a crime.”
Where race comes in
Mr. Castile’s race has dominated the conversation about his death, and tensions spilled over into the final stages of jury selection in St. Paul on Monday.
Defense lawyers tried to remove a young prospective juror who immigrated from Ethiopia as a child, saying she did not fully understand the American justice system and was incapable of serving. Prosecutors challenged the dismissal, saying that she was an accomplished student and that her exclusion was a veiled attempt at racism.
Ultimately, the judge ruled that she would serve on the jury.
Still, Mr. Castile’s death has defied some of the racial fault lines seen in other shootings. Officer Yanez is the son of a Mexican immigrant and depended on welfare at points in his childhood, defense lawyers said. Ms. Reynolds, Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, who testified on Monday, said Mr. Castile had attended police barbecues in St. Paul and harbored no animosity toward officers.
By Mitch Smith, The New York Times