In an unusual but legally appropriate way, the judge in the Jeronimo Yanez trial wrote a letter to the jury. Often, a judge will invite the jurors back into the chambers (office) after a trial has finished. The public gets a chance to see what the office looks like and can ask questions of the judge about the trial or other aspects of the justice system.
In a suburb of St. Paul, Officer Jeronimo Yanez stopped Philando Castile for a broken tail light and ended by shooting Castile to death. The officer was charged with a low level homicide (second degree manslaughter) and the jury of mixed race people found the officer not guilty.
That set off protests and complaints from many quarters that the jury system was worthless and the entire justice system was racist and not fair. The judge, William Leary, wrote the letter as a result. See the contents here:
Why did so many people protest the finding of Not Guilty? After many years working as a criminal lawyer, here’s what I think:
- Because of the pervasive influence of sports in our society, people view media coverage of trials in the same way. Criminal trials are intentionally adversarial, so the confusion of a sports event with a trial is likely. If their side doesn’t win, people get upset.
- Some people see racism in every aspect of our society. I agree that is true to some extent. Racism also exists in the criminal justice system. But in my years of experience, I have been encouraged by the juries I’ve tried cases in front of—they make a real effort to not be racist. In fact, the Yanez trial jury included two people of color.
- People get their information about a case from the media. And the media’s purpose is not to inform or educate the public—the media wants to get the public’s attention by upsetting them. Contrary to this practice, a jury gets all the facts, many of which the public never learns about. The jury’s decision is based on information that may be quite different from the TV news shows.
- There is a fundamental misunderstanding by people of what a jury is supposed to do. A finding of not guilty does not mean the jury condoned the officer’s actions or, in some way, thought his actions were okay. They were charged with making a decision as follows: did the evidence presented by the prosecution convince the Yanez trial jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Yanez was guilty of a crime of second degree manslaughter? They answered that narrow question with a no.
It’s still upsetting to all of us. Many of the issues touched on in the Yanez trial are on the minds of people. The jury is not tasked with correcting racism, training police, teaching gun owners how to act around police, etc. We want answers and justice. To put that burden on a jury in one case is unrealistic and something we really don’t want to do—it would ruin the system we have that presently works well.