(Editor’s note: Attention to language in paragraph 18 that some readers may find offensive)
By Todd Melby
ST. PAUL, Minn. (Reuters) - A Minnesota police officer was acquitted on Friday in the slaying of a black motorist he shot five times during a traffic stop last year, an incident that drew national attention after the victim’s girlfriend live-streamed the bloody aftermath on social media.
St. Anthony Police Department officer Jeronimo Yanez, who testified that he feared for his life when he fatally shot Philando Castile last July, was found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter.
The jury of seven men and five women, 10 of whom were white and two of whom were black, sided with the officer after deliberating for more than 25 hours spanning five days, acquitting Yanez on all charges.
The shooting death of Castile, 32, in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights triggered local protests and fuelled debate across the country over the appropriate use of force by law enforcement against minorities.
Friday’s verdict drew an angry reaction from Castile’s mother.
“I‘m mad as hell right now,” Valerie Castile told reporters after the verdict. “My first-born son died. ... Just because he was a police officer, that makes it OK.”
She said the verdict shows “the system continues to fail black people.”
Yanez, the son of a Mexican immigrant, testified during the trial in Ramsey County District Court that he feared for his life after Castile began reaching for a firearm that Castile had disclosed he had in his possession.
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the state capitol in St. Paul on Friday evening, and a series of speakers demanded justice for minorities in the American judicial system and stronger accountability measures for police. Many people waved signs and chanted in unison “stand up, fight back” and “if we don’t get no justice, they don’t get no peace.”
After the rally, police said roughly 2,000 people marched peacefully down streets in St. Paul, at times blocking traffic at intersections and then on Interstate 94, a major highway. Marchers also blocked commuter trains at one point and chanted “Yanez Guilty.”
An attorney for Yanez, Earl Gray, praised the verdict.
“Justice was done,” Gray told Reuters by telephone. “We’re very happy. Yanez was innocent. He was just doing his job.”
Shortly after the verdict, the City of St. Anthony said Yanez would not return to active duty and that it was negotiating a “voluntary separation agreement” with him.
CASTILE “WAS COMPLIANT”
The video footage of the aftermath of the shooting taken by Castile’s girlfriend, which went viral, had shaped many public perceptions of the fatal shooting before the trial.
The video begins with the girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, in the passenger seat as Castile, covered in blood, sits in the driver’s seat and a patrolman points his gun into the vehicle.
“He was trying to get out his ID and his wallet out of his pocket,” Reynolds says. “He let the officer know that he had a firearm and that he was reaching for his wallet, and the officer just shot him in his arm.”
Castile was shot with Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter in the car. The video showed blood oozing through Castile’s shirt as he appeared to lose consciousness.
“Fuck!” a voice is heard screaming. “I told him not to reach for it.”
Prosecutors said Yanez was not justified in firing his gun, saying that Castile was courteous and non-threatening.
John Choi, the Ramsey County prosecutor assigned to the case, told reporters following the verdict that Castile “did nothing that justified the taking of his life.”
“He was compliant,” Choi said.
After the shooting, then-President Barack Obama described as tragedies the deaths of Castile and of 37-year-old Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana - the second black man slain during an altercation with police in two days.
“All of us as Americans should be troubled by these shootings, because these are not isolated incidents,” Obama said at the time. “They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.”
Writing and additional reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin in CHICAGO and Eric M. Johnson in SEATTLE; Editing by Leslie Adler and Paul Tait