Thousands of people protested in St Paul on Friday evening, against the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer who shot and killed a black motorist, Philando Castile, in July last year.
Yanez was cleared on Friday of all charges relating to the death of Castile, a 32-year-old school cafeteria worker, during a 6 July traffic stop that turned deadly seconds after Castile alerted the officer that he was carrying a gun. Castile had a permit for the weapon. Castile’s death captured national attention when his girlfriend streamed the grim aftermath on Facebook
Protest organizers said their march was headed for the St Paul Cathedral. A mixed-race crowd, including many people with children, carried signs that read “Unite for Philando” and “Corrupt systems only corrupt”.
The protest was peaceful as darkness fell, but a smaller group splintered off and walked down an entrance ramp to block Interstate 94, quickly snarling traffic and leading to a shutdown in both directions. A police line confronted marchers down the highway, but after a standoff of more than 90 minutes, the group dwindled and appeared to largely clear the interstate without police using force.
Authorities later said 18 people were arrested. Minnesota state police spokeswoman Lt Tiffani Nielson said in a news release on Saturday that officers began arresting protesters at 12.30am, after issuing three warnings for them to get off of Interstate 94.
Those arrested were booked at Ramsey County jail on charges including being a pedestrian on the busy freeway.
Castile’s family stormed out of the courtroom after the verdict was read, and the city of St Anthony swiftly announced plans to dismiss Yanez despite his acquittal. Yanez was charged with manslaughter and other offences.
“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,” Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, said outside court, referring to the fact that her son was shot after he volunteered to Yanez: “Sir, I have to tell you, I do have a firearm on me.”
“He didn’t deserve to die the way he did,” said Castile’s sister, Allysza, through tears. “I will never have faith in the system.”
Jurors deliberated for about 29 hours over five days before reaching the verdict. Prosecutors argued that Yanez had overreacted and that Castile, a school cafeteria worker, was not a threat. Yanez, who is Latino, testified that Castile was pulling his gun out of his pocket despite his commands not to do so. The defense also argued Castile was high on marijuana and said that affected his actions.
Yanez stared ahead with no reaction as the verdict was read. Afterwards, one of his attorneys, Tom Kelly, said the defense was “satisfied” and “felt all along his conduct was justified”.
“However that doesn’t take away from the tragedy of the event,” Kelly added.
City officials in St Anthony said they would offer Yanez a “voluntary separation” because they had concluded “the public will be best served” if he is no longer an officer there.
Prosecutor John Choi, who made the decision to charge Yanez, said he knew the acquittal was painful for many people, but that the verdict “must be respected”.
“I don’t doubt that Officer Yanez is a decent person, but he made a horrible mistake from our perspective, and that’s what this case was about,” Choi said. “I know that if he could, he would take back what he did, and we all wish, and he would too, that this never happened.”
Castile’s shooting was among a string of killings of African Americans by police around the US. The livestreaming of its aftermath by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the car with her then-four-year-old daughter, attracted even more attention. Castile’s family claimed he was profiled because of his race, and the shooting renewed concerns about how police officers interact with minorities.
Governor Mark Dayton offered his condolences to Castile’s family after the verdict, calling his death “a terrible tragedy” in a statement that made no mention of Yanez. Dayton, a Democrat, drew criticism in the days after the shooting for suggesting that Castile might not have been shot if he was white.
The evidence included squad car video, but its wide view did not capture exactly what happened inside the car – leaving jurors to essentially decide whether they believed Yanez when he said Castile had his hand on the gun. Prosecutors questioned whether Yanez had even seen the weapon, and witnesses testified that it was in a pocket of Castile’s shorts when paramedics pulled him from the car.
Juror Dennis Ploussard said the jury was split 10-2 early this week in favor of acquittal. They spent a lot of time dissecting the “culpable negligence” requirement for conviction, and the last two holdouts eventually agreed on Friday. He declined to say whether he thought Yanez acted appropriately, but said the jury sympathizes with the Castile family.
“We struggled with it. I struggled with it. It was very, very hard,” Ploussard said, adding that he thought the jury delivered the right verdict. He would not identify the two early holdouts, but said they were not the jury’s only two black members. The rest of the jurors were white. None was Latino.
Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Yanez was also cleared of lesser counts related to endangering Castile’s girlfriend and her daughter for firing his gun into the car near them.