For black Minnesotans, the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile was the latest sign of a criminal justice system that often delivers heartbreak.
“The first thing I thought is the system is a joke,” said Lewis McCaleb, 19, of Minneapolis, who just graduated from the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul. “It puts fear in my heart and of all young black males. We feel we can’t be protected by these people who are supposed to patrol the cities.”
For police officers, the not-guilty verdict also brought a sense of foreboding, with their relationships with the black community already rocky at best and officers feeling that the scrutiny they operate under is higher than ever.
“They feel like defendants,” said Minneapolis attorney Fred Bruno, who frequently represents officers in criminal cases.
The Ramsey County jury’s decision to clear Yanez of felony manslaughter for Castile’s shooting last July reverberated nationally, becoming the latest in a string of cases — from Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla., to Freddie Gray in Baltimore — to illustrate how difficult it is to hold officers criminally responsible for killing civilians. In 15 recent high-profile cases of black men who were killed by police or who died in police custody, just two resulted in convictions.
The Yanez case, like the others, seems to have only hardened divisions and distrust on all sides. The only agreement seems to rest in the idea that it could be a long time before relations improve.
“The feeling is deep anger, a sense of betrayal,” said Ron Edwards, a civil rights activist and former president of the Minneapolis Urban League. “Today I’m afraid we’re at an abyss. It will take an extreme effort to get this generation to understand that change is possible.”
Former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner sees the strain.
“Every aspect of the case has been difficult for all sides,” Gaertner said. “It would be naive to think that the acquittal won’t impact police-community relations to some extent.”
After a weeklong trial, jurors needed 29 hours of deliberation to acquit Yanez, 29, of felony manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm for killing Castile, 32, last July 6 in Falcon Heights. Yanez had also been accused of endangering Castile’s passengers, Diamond Reynolds and her daughter, then 4.
Reynolds’ Facebook Live video of the moments after Castile’s death captured worldwide attention, and Yanez became the first Minnesota police officer in modern history to be charged with the shooting death of a civilian. Castile’s killing came eight months after the death of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man fatally shot during a scuffle with two Minneapolis police officers. Those officers were not charged and Clark’s death had provoked weeks of protest in north Minneapolis.
Prosecutors in the Yanez case thought they had solid evidence of an officer acting rashly and with excessive force, but what some outsiders saw as an open-and-shut case became a grueling deliberation of the jury of five women and seven men, including two black jurors. Their discussions ultimately focused on the legal definition of culpable negligence, which is required for a manslaughter conviction. Under Minnesota law, it occurs when a person “creates an unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another.”
Faced with the choice of deciding that Yanez consciously chose to create unreasonable risk or that he had acted out of fear, instinct and confusion, the jury found that Yanez had acted within the law.
On its face, the verdict could be seen as reassuring for police, but several former officers said they believe the trial could instead have a chilling effect. From whether police cooperate when they become the target of an investigation to how they deal with the public, the Yanez case further complicates policing in several ways, they said. It’s becoming more common for officers to refuse to cooperate when they are targets of an investigation, Bruno said.
“I’m concerned about [officers] evoking their Fifth Amendment rights in these cases, and what that does to undermine trust in the system,” said recently retired Police Chief Paul Schnell, who spent four years at Maplewood and 22 years with St. Paul and Hastings police and the Carver County Sheriff’s Office. “The implication is it erodes community trust.”
Although officers have a right to exercise their Fifth Amendment rights, they customarily have submitted to questioning, Bruno said. That’s changing as they worry that their words will be used against them. At Yanez’s manslaughter trial, prosecutors highlighted statements in a one-hour interview he gave Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) investigators as proof of his guilt.
“It’s just getting more and more antagonistic,” Bruno said. “Prosecutors, they’re all looking for their trophy cop to bag so they can tell the public that they’re evenhanded.”
Dustin Reichert, a former Anoka County sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed a man who raised a weapon at him in 2003, watched much of the Yanez trial. Reichert said the mere fact that Yanez was charged will change how officers do their jobs. Cops depend on prosecutors to bring charges for their cases. But Ramsey County’s charges against Yanez, Reichert said, have destroyed the trust between that office and police.
A cop might also think twice about doing a routine traffic stop, Reichert said.
“If you do proactive policing, you increase the risk of getting hurt by the public, or getting prosecuted if you defend yourself,” he said.
That might make officers less willing to be visible in the community, identify suspects, and try to stop fights and crimes.
‘What do we do now?’
In the wake of the verdict, Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, called the decision proof of a dysfunctional criminal justice system.
“There has always been a systemic problem in the state of Minnesota, and me thinking with my common sense, that we would get justice in this case,” she said. “But nevertheless, it never seems to fail us, the system continues to fail black people and it will continue to fail you all. This happened to Philando and when they get done with us, they’re coming for you, and you, and you and all your interracial children.”
Her words resonated with protesters, who gathered at the Capitol and marched toward Interstate 94, blocking the freeway for three hours in the early morning hours Saturday.
Al Flowers, one of two black candidates for Minneapolis mayor and a longtime activist, said it’s going to be difficult to talk to young people about the police after the Yanez verdict. He said he’s used to major setbacks, but younger people felt that given the dashcam video of the shooting, a conviction was warranted.
“I have young people calling me saying ‘What do we do now?’ It is devastating for us, but more so for them,” he said. “It makes our work that much harder.”
The same sentiment was expressed by Damario Williams, 28, a youth basketball coach at Ascension Catholic School in Minneapolis.
“I feel hopeless,” Williams said. “The shooting was on tape and on camera and he still walked away.”
Gaertner acknowledged the massive attention the Yanez case received and questioned whether hopes about what it would produce were too lofty.
“It seems as the community at large was looking at this prosecution to effect major social change, eradicate racism, restore communities of colors’ trust in the criminal justice system — a lot of things a single verdict in either direction would not accomplish,” she said.
McCaleb said the acquittal was all that he and his friends were talking about Saturday.
“Why did he kill him?” they asked. “Why did he have to shoot him? Why didn’t he get convicted?”
Staff writer Brandon Stahl contributed to this report.
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