CHICAGO — The Minnesota officer facing manslaughter charges for fatally shooting a black man during a traffic stop last year took the stand on Friday and gave emotional testimony saying “he had no choice” when he pulled his gun.
Officer Jeronimo Yanez who fatally shot Philando Castile in his car while his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter were sitting in the vehicle, sobbed while telling jurors what happened from his vantage point.
"I was scared to death. I thought I was going to die. My family popped into my head. My wife. My baby girl,” he said, according to NBC-affiliate KARE 11. "I had no other choice. I was forced to engage Mr. Castile."
Yanez is charged with manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm for killing Castile. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, live streamed the aftermath of the encounter, showing his bloody death.
Yanez said the encounter started when he pulled over Castile, whom he believed fit the description of an armed robbery suspect.
When the officer approached the car, he testified that he “was hit with the odor of burnt marijuana from within the vehicle."
Yanez’s voice broke while describing how the exchange quickly escalated after he told Castile not to reach for a weapon.
He had a "total disregard for my commands," Yanez said. So he had to act fast not knowing if a weapon would be drawn on him.
"I did not want to shoot Mr. Castile. Those were not my intentions," he said, adding that he even reached in the car to try and stop Castile.
When asked by a lawyer if use of force was necessary, Yanez replied "Yes."
The shooting sparked national outrage and protest in the midst of a national conversation on policing.
Earlier this week, Reynolds testified that she felt she had to record the encounter with Yanez out of fear for her own life.
"Because I know that the people are not protected by police,” Reynolds said, according to NBC-affiliate KARE 11. "I wanted to make sure if I was to die in front of my daughter, someone would know the truth.”
The defense team has maintained the narrative that Yanez acting reasonably given the fact that Castile had a legally permitted gun and the officer feared for his safety.
That is a point of contention for the prosecution, which has called the officer's actions "unreasonable" and "excessive” and said he should have been more clear when giving orders to Castile.
Yanez who is Latino, had worked for the St. Anthony Police Department for nearly five years when he pulled Castile's car over.
He graduated from Minnesota State University-Mankato in 2010 with a degree in law enforcement, and was one of the top in his class.
Yanez's chief, Jon Mangseth, defended the officer when he took the witness stand on Thursday, saying Yanez had a record free of disciplinary problems as well as "a real sound ability when it comes to communicating and relating to people,” according to NBC affiliate KARE 11.
Yanez's fate rests in the hands of a jury who will deliberate at the close of the trial.