ST. PAUL, Minn. — A Minnesota police officer was acquitted of manslaughter Friday in the fatal shooting of a Philando Castile, a black motorist whose girlfriend streamed the aftermath live on Facebook.
Jeronimo Yanez was also cleared of two lesser charges in the July traffic stop in a St. Paul suburb. Jurors deliberated for about 29 hours over five days before reaching the verdict in the death of Castile, who was shot just seconds after informing Yanez that he was carrying a gun.
Castile's family members reacted angrily, with his mother, Valerie, standing and swearing as the verdict was read. She and other family members immediately tried to leave the courtroom, and did so after security officers briefly barred the way.
Outside the courthouse, Valerie Castile said Yanez got away with "murder," noting that her son was wearing a seatbelt and in a car with his girlfriend and her then-4-year-old daughter when he was shot.
"I will continue to say murder," she said. "I am so very, very, very ... disappointed in the system here in the state of Minnesota. Nowhere in the world do you die from being honest and telling the truth."
"He didn't deserve to die the way he did," Philando Castile's sister, Allysza, said, through tears. "I will never have faith in the system."
Yanez, who is Latino, testified that Castile was pulling his gun out of his pocket despite his commands not to do so. The defense also argued Castile was high on marijuana and said that affected his actions.
Yanez stared ahead with no reaction as the verdict was read. Afterward, one of his attorneys, Tom Kelly, said the defense was "satisfied."
"We were confident in our client. We felt all along his conduct was justified. However that doesn't take away from the tragedy of the event," Kelly said.
Despite the acquittal, the city of St. Anthony quickly announced it would dismiss Yanez, saying the public "will be best served" if he leaves the force. The city's statement said they would offer a voluntary separation agreement.
Prosecutors declined to comment.
Castile had a permit for the weapon, and prosecutors questioned whether Yanez ever saw it. They argued that the officer overreacted and that Castile was not a threat.
Juror Dennis Ploussard said the jury was split 10-2 early this week in favor of acquittal. They spent a lot of time dissecting the "culpable negligence" requirement for conviction, and the last two holdouts eventually agreed Friday on acquittal. He declined to say whether he thought Yanez acted appropriately, but said the jury sympathizes with the Castile family.
"We struggled with it. I struggled with it. It was very, very hard," Ploussard said, adding that he thought the jury delivered the right verdict.
He would not identify the two early holdouts, but said they were not the jury's only two black members. The rest of the jurors were white. None was Latino.
Castile's shooting was among a string of killings of blacks by police around the U.S., and the livestreaming of its aftermath by Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, attracted even more attention. The public outcry included protests in Minnesota that shut down highways and surrounded the governor's mansion. Castile's family claimed he was profiled because of his race, and the shooting renewed concerns about how police officers interact with minorities. Minnesota Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton also weighed in, saying he did not think the shooting would have happened if Castile had been white.
Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, though sentencing guidelines suggest around four years is more likely. He also faced two lesser counts of endangering Castile's girlfriend and her then-4-year-old daughter for firing his gun into the car near them.
Yanez testified that he stopped Castile in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights because he thought the 32-year-old elementary school cafeteria worker looked like one of two men who had robbed a nearby convenience store a few days earlier. Castile's car had a faulty brake light, giving the 29-year-old officer a legally sufficient pretext for pulling him over, several experts testified.
Squad-car video played for the jury shows a wide view of the traffic stop and the shooting, with the camera pointed toward Castile's car. While it captures what was said between the two men and shows Yanez firing into the vehicle, it does not show what happened inside the car or what Yanez might have seen.
The video shows the situation escalated quickly, with Yanez shooting Castile just seconds after Castile volunteered, "Sir, I have to tell you, I do have a firearm on me." Five of the officer's seven shots struck Castile. Witnesses testified that the gun was in a pocket of Castile's shorts when paramedics removed him from his vehicle.
Prosecutors called several witnesses to try to show that Yanez never saw the gun and acted recklessly and unreasonably. But defense attorneys called their own witnesses to back up Yanez's claim that he saw Castile pulling the gun and that Yanez was right to shoot.
After shooting Castile, Yanez is heard on the squad-car video telling a supervisor that he didn't know where Castile's gun was, then that he told Castile to get his hand off it. Yanez testified, "What I meant by that was I didn't know where the gun was up until I saw it in his right thigh area."
He said he clearly saw a gun and that Castile ignored his commands to stop pulling it out of his pocket. His voice choked with emotion as he talked of being "scared to death" and thinking of his wife and baby daughter in the split-second before he fired.
Prosecutors argued that Yanez could have taken lesser steps, such as asking to see Castile's hands or asking where the gun was. After Castile told the officer he had the gun, Yanez told Castile, "OK, don't reach for it then," and, "Don't pull it out."
On the squad-car video, Castile can be heard saying, "I'm not pulling it out," as Yanez opened fire. Prosecutors said Castile's last words were, "I wasn't reaching for it."
Reynolds testified that she began recording the shooting's aftermath because she feared for her life and wanted to make sure the truth was known. Defense attorneys pointed to inconsistencies in several of her statements.