A jury has acquitted a Minnesota police officer in the shooting death of a black man outside St. Paul last year, putting to end a tragic saga that began with a routine traffic stop.
St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez was charged in the July 2016 shooting of school cafeteria worker Philando Castile, igniting protests and a call to action by civil rights activists nationwide against the deadly use of force by police.
After five days and more than 25 hours of deliberation, a jury decided that the state did not meet its burden for a conviction. Yanez would have faced up to 10 years under Minnesota law if he had been convicted.
Yanez had been charged with manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm for fatally shooting Castile, 32, in his car while Castile's girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter were sitting in the vehicle just outside St. Paul, Minnesota.
The jury that determined Yanez's fate consisted of seven men and five women. Two jurors were black and the rest were white.
Castile's family held each other and wept in disappointment as they left the courtroom on Friday.
"The system continues to fail black people," said Castile's mother, Valerie, following the verdict. "My son loved this city and this city killed my son and let the murderer get away," she said with high emotion.
Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was a key witness for the prosecution said she was "incredibly disappointed" with the jury's decision. "It is a sad state of affairs when this type of criminal conduct is condoned simply because Yanez is a policeman," she said in a statement. "God help America," she said.
Despite the acquittal, Yanez will not be returning to “active duty” said the city of St. Anthony in a statement following the verdict. "The public will be best served if Officer Yanez is no longer a police officer in our city," the statement said. The city added that it was negotiating a voluntary separation agreement that would help Yanez transition into another career.
Castile and Yanez came face-to-face during a traffic stop last July that quickly escalated into a deadly encounter live-streamed on Facebook by Reynolds. Yanez had been with the St. Anthony Police Department for nearly five years when he pulled over Castile's car.
In the disturbing video, Reynolds says Castile was shot several times while reaching for his ID after telling Yanez he had a gun permit and was armed.
Yanez can be heard saying: "I told him not to reach for it."
Reynolds can be heard responding, "You told him to get his ID, sir, his driver's license."
"He's licensed to carry," she calmly tells the camera as Castile sits beside her bleeding. "He was trying to get out his ID and his wallet out of his pocket, and he let the officer know that he was — he had a firearm and he was reaching for his wallet."
Reynolds testified during the trial that she recorded the encounter 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.”
Yanez, who pulled Castile over because he looked like a possible armed robbery suspect, testified that “he had no choice” when he pulled his gun.
The officer told jurors that Castile did not have “regard for his commands," and he felt the motorist would shoot him.
"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.
Much of the argument during the trial hinged on whether Yanez had a reasonable belief and fear that Castile was going to pull a gun.
The shooting ignited protests in Minnesota. It occurred just days after the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and came amid a heated national debate over policing and wrongful use of force.
During closing arguments, the prosecution said Yanez used deadly force "as a first option rather than a last resort," according to NBC-affiliate KARE 11.
"He had no reason to do that. He had every reason not to do that. It doesn't make sense," said prosecutor Jeffrey Paulsen.
But defense attorneys painted a different picture.
Lawyers for Yanez told jurors that they could “reasonably infer” that Castile was “stoned,” which led him to be non-compliant with the officer.
"How can you 20/20 this now and say Officer Yanez was wrong?" said defense attorney Earl Gray. "He wasn't following orders. He was stoned," he said.
The St. Paul Public School System, where Castile worked, said they will continue to "mourn the loss of "Mr. Phil" who was a "beloved" employee and will have counselors on hand for anyone who needs support to process the verdict.
The Castile family's attorney expressed disappointment in the result and gave a strong warning to others. "If Philando can die under these circumstances. Let's be clear, each of you could," said attorney Glenda Hatchett.
Prosecutor John Choi said he was "saddened" by the outcome.
"I understand this verdict brings a lot of hurt and pain and deep seeded frustration to a lot of people in this community," he said. "But we have to accept this verdict" because it was the product of "fair and impartial" process, he said.
Meanwhile, Yanez's attorney said the officer was "relieved" to hear the verdict and that the trial was "fair all the way around."
"The verdict was correct and we're happy jury found our way," he said.