Philando Castile’s fatal encounter last July with St. Anthony police Officer Jeronimo Yanez lasted only a minute, but quickly escalated from a “respectful and compliant” exchange to one steeped in confusion and fear.
In an extraordinary move by a Minnesota prosecutor, authorities said the officer, not the civilian, is to blame for the tragic events that turned a traffic stop in a Twin Cities suburb into a flash point in the national debate over racial profiling and police use of force.
Yanez pulled Castile, a 32-year-old, over at 9:05 p.m. July 9 on Larpenteur Avenue near Fry Street in Falcon Heights. By 9:06 p.m., the young officer had fired seven shots into Castile’s car, killing him as his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter watched.
For those actions, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said at a news conference Wednesday morning, Yanez will be charged with three felony counts — second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. He’s the first Minnesota officer charged in an on-duty killing in modern memory.
“To those of you who may say this incident was Philando Castile’s fault, I would submit that no reasonable officer — knowing, seeing and hearing what officer Yanez did at the time — would have used deadly force under these circumstances,” Choi said. “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.”
A Facebook Live video recorded by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, showing him bleeding in the car while the officer held them at gunpoint, has been viewed millions of times around the world, and touched off widespread outrage and protests over police killings of black men.
Many praised Reynolds for having the wherewithal to film the aftermath and provide narration as Yanez stood outside, screaming, with his gun pointed at her.
Reynolds said in an interview Wednesday that she was “very, very thankful” that charges were filed.
“I was worried that charges were not going to be brought against him just because of the simple fact that he is a police officer,” she said.
The months since Castile’s shooting have been “very difficult, very overwhelming,” she said. “I’m trying to stay as strong as possible. I just want the community and everyone behind us to stay strong and stay together. Because we’re going to get our justice.
“This is only the first step. We are looking for conviction.”
Neither Yanez, who’s on paid administrative leave from his department, nor his attorney could be reached Wednesday. He’s summoned to appear in court Friday. The leader of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association called Choi’s decision to charge “disappointing,” while the state chapter of the National Latino Police Association said it “stands behind Officer Yanez.”
Choi’s decision drew positive reactions from many politicians, including Gov. Mark Dayton and leaders of civil rights and civil liberties groups.
Before Yanez, no officer had been charged in more than 150 police-involved deaths in Minnesota since 2000.
For the first time, the events that unfolded before Reynolds’ recording went live were revealed in the criminal complaint filed against Yanez Wednesday. It gives this account of Castile and Yanez’s encounter, which the charges say was captured on his squad’s dashcam:
Yanez pulled Castile over because he matched the description of a suspect in a gas station robbery due to his “wide-set nose.” The officer said Castile also had a non-working brake light. Castile complied with the stop immediately.
St. Anthony Officer Joseph Kauser arrived as backup.
Yanez placed his right hand on his belt near his gun as he approached the driver’s side door. He greeted Castile and informed him of the light issue. He requested Castile’s driver’s license and insurance card, and received the insurance card.
The trouble started about 52 seconds into the stop.
“Sir,” Castile said, “I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me.”
Yanez replied, “Okay,” and put his hand on his holstered gun, the charges said.
“Okay, don’t reach for it, then,” Yanez said.
Castile’s response was partly inaudible. Yanez interrupted him.
“Don’t pull it out,” Yanez said.
“I’m not pulling it out,” Castile said.
“He’s not pulling it out,” Reynolds said.
“Yanez screamed, ‘Don’t pull it out’ and quickly pulled his own gun with his right hand while he reached inside the driver’s side window with his left hand,” the charges said.
Yanez fired seven times. Kauser, who was on the sidewalk on the passenger side of the vehicle, did not touch his gun during the incident. Choi said that there was no evidence that Castile pulled or attempted to pull his gun out of the foot-deep pocket of his shorts.
Castile’s last words were: “I wasn’t reaching for it.”
Kauser, who was cleared of any wrongdoing, told investigators that he was “absolutely” surprised when Yanez fired his weapon.
Castile was not involved in the gas station robbery, Choi said.
The charges also reveal a detail that Choi highlighted in his news conference: A statement Yanez gave investigators from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) the day after the shooting was inconsistent with a statement he gave an officer from his department minutes after the shooting.
“And I don’t know where the gun was, he didn’t tell me where the [expletive] gun was and then it was just getting hinky, he gave, he was just staring ahead, and the I was getting [expletive] nervous, and then I told him, I know I [expletive] told him to get his [expletive] hand off his gun,” Yanez told a St. Anthony police officer minutes after the shooting.
In an interview with the BCA the next day, Yanez said that Castile had an object in his hand.
“But I, I know he had an object and it was dark,” Yanez said, according to the charges. “And he was pulling it out with his right hand. And as he was pulling it out I, a million things started going through my head. And I thought I was gonna die. And, I was scared because, I didn’t know if he was gonna, I didn’t know what he was gonna do.”
Choi said Yanez’s use of force was not reasonable, and that he also endangered Reynolds and her daughter, who was in the rear passenger seat.
“There was absolutely no criminal intent exhibited by [Castile] throughout this encounter,” Choi said. “He was respectful and compliant based upon the instructions and orders he was given.”
Conviction of second-degree manslaughter carries a presumptive sentence of about four years and a maximum of 10 years in prison.
News of the charges was met with tears from activists who gathered in Choi’s lobby. The development was bittersweet, coming a year and a day after Minneapolis police fatally shot Jamar Clark, whose case also prompted months of protests. Opting against presenting the case to a grand jury, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman cleared officers of any wrongdoing in Clark’s death.
Choi also decided to make the charging decision himself, likely among the most difficult of his career.
“We’ve had a number of heartbreaks,” said Jason Sole, president of the Minneapolis NAACP. “… To have Choi actually give words and … express truth to power, I think that’s all we can ask for right now.”
Staff writers Pat Pheifer and Brandon Stahl contributed to this report.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708