In St. Paul, Minnesota the end of a tragic event has finally happened. A police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, shot and killed Philando Castile in a traffic stop in a suburb of St. Paul. It triggered protests, questions, and crying. It forced a searing look at the interactions between police and citizens. Statistics show that the chances of anyone being killed during a police stop are extremely low. But when a death happens, it’s tragic for everyone.
But this case was different. It started as a traffic stop for a broken tail light. When Officer Jeronimo Yanez approached the driver, Philando Castile, Castile informed the officer he was licensed to carry a gun and had one. Within seconds, the officer fired five times and killed Philano Castile. A dashboard video in the police car showed some of the incident. Just after the shooting, Mr. Castile’s girlfriend filmed smart phone video also.
Probably motivated to some extent by the publicity and protests, the local County Attorney charged the officer with Involuntary Manslaughter—a low level of homicide. The officer pled not guilty and the case went to trial. After several days of trial and deliberation, the jury found the officer not guilty of all counts. See the story in New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/16/us/police-shooting-trial-philando-castile.html?_r=0
I have practiced criminal law for 40 years and tried dozens of jury trials including homicides. Many people wonder: How could the jury find the Officer Jeronimo Yanez not guilty?
Here are some of the possible reasons:
- When we read or watch the videos of these events, we tend to look at both sides and weigh each one against the other to try and determine who’s at fault. A jury doesn’t look at it that way. They are instructed to look at the government’s evidence and determine if it proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Jeronimo Yanez committed a crime.
- In addition, the media does not present facts that educate or inform us—instead, they present facts that are sensational. This means we often don’t get the same, complete picture of the evidence that a jury does during a trial—which could lead to a very different conclusion.
- After the verdict, one of the jurors spoke to the media and said that 10 out of the 12 jurors early on voted for an acquittal. That tells me the government’s case was weak from the beginning. Perhaps, the case should never have been charged in the first place.
- I still maintain that it’s hard to convict police officers acting in the exercise of their duties. We give them a lot of discretion and the legal authority to use deadly force, when they determine it’s necessary. As citizens, we also tend to support them when they carry-out their duties.
In all my years working in criminal law, I’ve known many police officers. I can tell you that not only is this case a tragedy for the family of the victim, Philando Castile, but also for Officer Jeronimo Yanez and his family. Not one police officer I’ve known has wanted to kill anyone. If they do, it weighs on them for the rest of their lives.