The Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop was acquitted on all charges by a jury Friday, a decision that came nearly a year after the encounter was partially streamed online before a rapt nation in the midst of a painful reckoning over shootings by law enforcement.
Officer Jeronimo Yanez pulled over Castile in Falcon Heights, a suburb near Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the officer later said he thought Castile matched the description of a suspect in a recent robbery. The stop quickly escalated. Yanez fired into the car, saying later he thought Castile was going for his gun, something disputed by Castile’s girlfriend, who began filming the aftermath with her phone.
The jurors in the case had been deliberating since Monday, and the verdict was announced on Friday afternoon after about 27 total hours of deliberation, according to the Minnesota Star Tribune.
Prosecutors charged Yanez with second-degree manslaughter in November, a felony, saying that “no reasonable officer” would have used deadly force in the same situation. He was also charged with two felony counts for intentionally discharging the gun.
Police officers are seldom charged for fatal on-duty shootings, and convictions are even less common.
Outside the court where the verdict was announced, relatives of Castile’s denounced the jury’s decision. Castile’s mother called his death a murder and tied the verdict to what she described as systemic racism in Minnesota.
“The system continues to fail black people, and it will continue to fail you all,” she said. She added: “My son loved this city and this city killed my son. And the murderer gets away. Are you kidding me right now?”
During the trial, jurors heard testimony from dozens of witnesses, including Yanez, a police officer with St. Anthony, who cried on the stand while saying he did not want to shoot Castile.
During his testimony, Yanez reiterated what he told investigators who probed the shooting, saying he thought his life was in danger at the time. Attorneys for Yanez have argued that Castile caused his own death because of his actions during the traffic stop.
Castile was one of 963 people who police officers fatally shot last year, according to a Washington Post database tracking such shootings. The fatal encounter in Minnesota was among the most high-profile last year because Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, broadcast the moments after Castile’s shooting on Facebook Live, graphic footage that quickly spread online and drew international attention to the Twin Cities suburbs.
The shooting on July 6, 2016 became part of an ongoing debate over how law enforcement officers use deadly force, particularly toward black men and boys, and it came during a particularly frenzied period that also saw a controversial shooting in Baton Rouge and an ambush that killed five police officers in Dallas.
In Minnesota, Reynolds calmly documented what happened after Yanez shot Castile, 32, a popular cafeteria worker at a local school. She explained into her phone that Castile was licensed to carry a firearm, and that he had told the officer that before reaching for his wallet.
According to a complaint filed in Minnesota state court, police car audio and video recordings show that the gunfire erupted just a minute after Castile stopped his car.
Yanez approached the car window and asked Castile for his license and proof of insurance, which the driver handed over, the complaint states. Castile also told Yanez he had a firearm on him, and seconds later, the officer told the driver not to pull out the gun. Castile said he was not taking out the gun, which Reynolds echoed. Yanez screamed, “Don’t pull it out” and pulled his own gun out, firing seven shots at Castile, the complaint states.
The complaint then shifts to quoting from Reynolds’s Facebook video, saying that the footage “begins immediately after the shooting and while Yanez had his gun drawn and pointed toward the mortally wounded Castile.” Reynolds says in the footage that Castile was trying to get his ID out before the officer opened fire.
“Stay with me,” she said. She added: “They just killed my boyfriend.”
When Yanez spoke to state investigators a day after the shooting, he told them he was “in fear for my life and my partner’s life.” Yanez told them that he thought Castile was reaching for the gun.
“I thought I was gonna die,” he told investigators, according to the complaint.
Yanez and his partner, Officer Joseph Kauser, worked for the St. Anthony Police Department, another city in the area. They were both considered model students before receiving their degrees in law enforcement in 2010. Both officers were put on leave after the shooting. Authorities did not charge Kauser, saying that he did not touch or remove his gun during the shooting.
During the trial, Kauser defended Yanez, his former partner.
“I think he followed protocol,” testified Kauser, who has since switched departments, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “I trust him as a partner, and he did what he’s supposed to do in that situation.”
Prosecutors also charged Yanez with endangering the lives of Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter, who was also riding in the car that night.
“No reasonable officer knowing, seeing and hearing what Officer Yanez did at the time would have used deadly force under these circumstances,” Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said when announcing the charges last year. “I have given Officer Yanez every benefit of the doubt on his use of deadly force, but I cannot allow the death of a motorist who was lawfully carrying a firearm under these facts and circumstances to go unaccounted for.”
According to the complaint, one of Yanez’s bullets went through the driver’s seat and hit the backseat. Reynolds’s daughter was sitting in a car seat on the other side of the car. Another bullet hit the armrest between Castile and Reynolds, the complaint stated.
Yanoz pulled over Castile after seeing him driving and saying he looked like a suspect in a convenience store robbery that had occurred days earlier. Authorities later said Castile was not a suspect in that robbery.
Castile was killed during an intense three-day eruption of violence last summer. A day earlier, an officer in Baton Rouge shot and killed Alton Sterling, another encounter captured on a video that quickly went viral. Castile’s death, like Sterling’s, set off protests across the country.
At one of these protests taking place a day after Castile was shot, a lone attacker in Dallas opened fire on police officers, killing five and wounding several others in the deadliest single day for law enforcement since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The attacker in Dallas told police he was angered by the shootings of Castile and Sterling, authorities said.
Officers are rarely charged for fatal on-duty shootings. Yanez is the first officer in Minnesota charged for an on-duty shooting since at least 2005, according to Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who studies arrests of officers and has kept data since that year.
After the Castile verdict came out, Stinson said that of the 82 non-federal law enforcement officers charged with murder or manslaughter for a fatal on-duty shooting, about a third were convicted of a crime.
Most of those officers were convicted of lesser offenses, he said, with only five of the 29 officers convicted of murder. Including Yanez, 33 officers were not convicted; Yanez is the 17th officer acquitted after a jury trial. Another 20 criminal cases are still pending, Stinson said.
Convictions in such cases are even rarer than prosecutions. In Baltimore, six police officers were charged in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, but after three officers were found not guilty in separate trials, prosecutors last summer dropped charges against the remaining officers still facing trial.
Mistrials were declared last year in two other trials centered on high-profile police shootings that, like Castile’s death, followed traffic stops and included recordings that were widely shared.
In South Carolina, jurors deadlocked in the case of Michael Slager, a former police officer who fatally shot Walter Scott, a fleeing driver in North Charleston. State prosecutors had vowed to try him again, but Slager pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge this year, resolving both cases.
Jurors in Ohio also deadlocked during the first prosecution of Raymond Tensing, a former University of Cincinnati officer who shot Samuel DuBose during an off-campus stop. Prosecutors sought another trial, which began earlier this month.
This story, first published at 4:02 p.m., has been updated with new information.