Law & the Courts

The Corner

A Tragedy and an Acquittal

In response to R.I.P.

Like my colleague David French, today I’ve been thinking a lot about the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, the St. Anthony, Minn., police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile, a black man with a concealed-carry permit, in July of last year.

Castile’s death is a tragedy. With the benefit of hindsight it seems clear he had no intention of harming anyone. Had Yanez not pulled the trigger, the world would be a far better place.

But Yanez did not have the benefit of hindsight at the time, and we cannot judge him as if he had.

Thanks to an appalling lack of transparency on the part of St. Anthony, we still don’t have the single best piece of evidence in this case — Yanez’s dash-cam video was played in court but has not yet been fully released to the public. But here is what seems to have happened, according to the prosecution’s own timeline (which David also noted) and other accounts.

Yanez pulled Castile over and asked to see his license and proof of insurance. Castile provided his insurance card but not his license, and calmly informed the officer that he was carrying a firearm.

It seems undisputed that at this point Castile reached for something. The officer claims Castile actually put his hand on the weapon. Castile’s girlfriend claimed he was just getting his license, as he’d been instructed to do — albeit before telling the officer he was carrying. (I think David and I place different weights on this detail. I would argue that when you tell a police officer you have a gun, that interrupts any previous instruction that involves putting your hand in your pocket.) Yanez said “Don’t reach for it” once and “Don’t pull it out” twice before firing.

I think it’s obvious why Yanez would have been alarmed if Castile reached for his pocket and continued to do so when told not to “reach for it” or “pull it out.” As I wrote in this space half a decade ago, police officers cannot be expected to wait until someone actually produces a firearm before taking action. By that point, it’s too late.

But we just don’t know exactly what Castile did. Body-camera footage, instead of dash-cam footage, might have helped.

It’s also possible Castile wasn’t thinking clearly. He had THC in his system and marijuana in his car, though there’s disagreement over his precise level of intoxication during the encounter.

I wish more than anything that Castile had not been killed. But with a standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” I just don’t know that there was any other decision for the jury to reach.

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