By Harry Colbert, Jr., Managing Editor
In what many see as a first step towards justice in the killing of motorist Philando Castile, St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez has been charged with second degree manslaughter.
The announcement came last Wednesday (Nov. 16) as Ramsey County Prosecuting Attorney John Choi laid out the set of facts that led him to file charges against Yanez in the highly-publicized July 6 shooting death of Castile, who was driving in Falcon Heights when he was pulled over by Yanez for a supposed broken taillight. What ensued was Yanez shooting Castile seven times while Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter were in the car. Immediately following Castile being shot Reynolds livestreamed the now-viral video on Facebook.
Castile, who was still in his seatbelt, was legally armed with a handgun and informed Yanez of this before he was shot. Yanez claimed Castile reached for his weapon but in Choi’s announcement of charges he said Castile never reached for a weapon and his hands were visible to Yanez during the entire interaction.
“Philando Castile announced calmly to Officer Yanez that he had a gun and Yanez, said ‘OK, don’t reach for it,’ then, Castile responded ‘I’m not reaching for it’ before being again interrupted by Yanez, who said, ‘Don’t pull it out.’ Castile responded ‘I’m not pulling it out,’ and Reynolds also said, ‘He’s not pulling it out.’ Yanez screamed, ‘Don’t pull it out’ and quickly pulled his own gun then fired seven shots in the direction of Castile in rapid succession,” said Choi.
According to Choi, Castile’s last words after being shot were “I wasn’t reaching for it.”
“Based on the evidence, Castile never reached or tried to remove his gun,” said Choi, who said the magazine of Castile’s gun was loaded but there was no round in the chamber. He also said at the time of his death Castile was carrying with him his permit to legally carry a firearm. “No reasonable officer would have used deadly force under these circumstances. I cannot let the death of a motorist legally carrying a firearm go unpunished.”
The Ramsey County prosecutor said the decision to charge Yanez with a crime was his and his alone to make.
“My conscious tells me it’s wrong for me to ask a grand jury to make this decision when I know what in my heart is the right thing to do,” said Choi. “Based on review, it is my conclusion that use of force was not justified.”
Choi also questioned the reason for the stop in the first place, citing Yanez’ own words saying he pulled Castile over for his “wide set nose,” saying he fit the description of a robbery suspect. Many said that would have been virtually impossible for Yanez to see considering the stop occurred at 9:30 at night and Castile was traveling in a moving vehicle. Choi said Castile had no connection whatsoever to any robbery.
In addition to the second degree manslaughter charge Yanez, a four year veteran of the St. Anthony Police Department, was also charged with two felony counts of discharging a firearm that endangered the safety of others. Those charges stem from Reynolds and her daughter being in the car at the time of the shooting. The manslaughter charge comes with a maximum sentence of 10 years if convicted and the endangerment charges carry a five year sentence each. Choi said he decided to charge the lesser charge of manslaughter rather than second degree murder based on what he felt would be the most winnable case in front of a jury.
Just a day after the anniversary of the Jamar Clark killing by Minneapolis police – a case where the officers involved were not charged – Choi’s decision to charge Yanez came as a shock to some.
“It feels weird. In most cases officers don’t get charged, so for (Choi) to actually validate us; it’s huge, but it’s strange,” said newly elected Minneapolis NAACP president, Jason Sole, who had been a leading protester following both shootings and who was outside of Choi’s office during the announcement. “But it was the right decision and what happened is the narrative was shattered that Philando Castile did something wrong.”