A Latino police officer has been cleared of manslaughter in the controversial shooting death of an African American man in Minnesota, triggering local protests and fueling debate over the use of force by law enforcement against minorities.
Officer Jeronimo Yanez was accused of killing 32-year-old student Philando Castile, a cafeteria worker, inside his car as he tried to reach for his driver’s license during a traffic stop near St. Paul in July last year.
On Friday, a jury said after five days of deliberation that Yanez had acted reasonably and was not guilty. He was also cleared of two lesser charges regarding the case.
Prosecutors argued that the cop had overreacted and was guilty of second-degree manslaughter, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
He was also accused of endangering Castile’s girlfriend and her then 4-year-old daughter by firing his gun into the car as they sat next to Castile.
Yanez defended his actions, arguing that he shot Castile because he had a gun and that he only reacted after the suspect reached for his gun in his pocket despite being warned not to do so. He also accused Castile of being influenced by drugs.
Prosecutors, however, said Castile had a permit for his weapon and was not a threat. They also asked Yanez if he had ever seen the suspect’s gun.
In a video of the encounter, Castile is heard voluntarily informing the officer of carrying a gun.
The verdict outraged Castile’s family, who insisted that he was murdered.
“The fact in this matter is that my son was murdered, and I’ll continue to say murdered, because where in this planet (can you) tell the truth, and you be honest, and you still be murdered by the police of Minnesota,” said Valerie, Castile’s mother.
“He didn’t deserve to die the way he did,” Castile’s sister, Allysza, said. “I will never have faith in the system.”
Officials in St. Anthony dismissed Yanez from his job on Friday afternoon, saying in a statement that the public “will be best served” if he no longer worked for the city.
The 12-member jury, comprised of two African Americans and 10 white jurors, arrived at the conclusion after deliberating for 29 hours over five straight days.
Following the verdict, a few hundred people gathered at the nearby state Capitol to protest the jury’s decision. The mixed-race crowd were carrying signs that read “Unite for Philando” and “Corrupt systems only corrupt.”
‘Mad as hell’
The verdict drew an angry reaction from Castile’s mother, who said it showed “the system continues to fail black people.”
“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.”
Minnesota State Patrol said it arrested 18 protesters following the demonstrations on Interstate 94 in St. Paul. They were taken into custody after they refused to disperse, the agency said on Twitter.
Police said that an estimated 2,000 people took to the streets, including a crowd gathered outside the Minnesota state Capitol.
Castile’s death came only a day after 37-year-old Alton Sterling was fatally shot by police in the southeastern city of Baton Rouge.
The two deaths triggered a nationwide wave of protests that lasted several days and led to the arrest of hundreds of people.