Subdued and somber but unsparing, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi held firm to his conviction Friday that officer Jeronimo Yanez had made fatal mistakes in his traffic stop last summer of Philando Castile. Nevertheless, Choi urged Minnesotans to accept the not-guilty verdict in Yanez’s manslaughter trial.
“As hard as this is for some members of our community, we have to accept this verdict. It was the product of a fair and impartial investigation, thorough prosecution review and a trial by a jury of Ramsey County residents,” said Choi, who spoke solemnly and haltingly. “Their decision must be respected, because it is the fundamental premise of the rule of law.”
Members of his team put their “heart and soul” into the unsuccessful prosecution of Yanez in the shooting death of Philando Castile, he said.
“We gave it our best shot, we really did,” said Choi, flanked by assistant county attorneys Clayton Robinson and Richard Dusterhoft and federal prosecutor Jeffrey Paulsen.
Choi said they were fighting not only to find justice for Castile’s family, but for “the integrity of the process” after the shooting captured worldwide attention when Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, livestreamed its aftermath.
“I know that this case went worldwide, nationwide,” he said. “Because of that, because of the Facebook Live video, just the sadness of seeing somebody die on video — that got people upset, sad and angry.”
Although prosecutors frequently referred to an interview Yanez gave to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, they never admitted it into evidence while presenting their case. A late bid to do so during defense testimony was denied by District Judge William H. Leary III.
Asked why the prosecution did not enter it into evidence, Choi said he “didn’t want to get into the play-by-play” of strategy.
He lingered on the fact that Castile was polite and cooperative in the traffic stop that led to his death.
“The toughest part to me with respect to those facts is that he was so respectful in how he disclosed that he had that firearm. He said, ‘Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me,’ and he went beyond what the law requires,” Choi said. “He was compliant; he wasn’t resistant. At the end of the day, this was a traffic stop. Unfortunately, the jury didn’t see it that way.”
A rare set of charges
In November, Choi announced that Yanez would be charged with three felony counts — second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm.
“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 at the time. “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.”
His decision to charge Yanez 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.
Choi said at the time that Yanez’s use of force was not reasonable and that he endangered Reynolds and her daughter, who was in the rear passenger seat.
If Yanez had been convicted of second-degree manslaughter, he would have spent at least four years, and possibly up to 10, in prison.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465