ST. PAUL — In a stunning decision that shook police and protesters alike, the officer who fatally shot Philando Castile was charged with manslaughter in his death — the first Minnesota officer in recent memory charged in such an incident.
"Unreasonable fear cannot justify the use of deadly force," Ramsey County attorney John Choi said Wednesday during a news conference in which he announced he was charging St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez, 28, with second-degree manslaughter for Castile's death, and with two felony counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm for endangering the two other people in Castile's car.
"My conscience tells me it would be wrong for me to ask a grand jury to make this decision when I know in my heart what needs to be done. ... In order to achieve justice, we must be willing to do the right thing."
Yanez, a four-year veteran of the St. Anthony police department, was charged via summons — meaning he is responsible for appearing in Ramsey County District Court on Friday but will not be arrested with a warrant.
Yanez is on administrative leave from the department. Neither he nor his attorney could immediately be reached Wednesday.
Yanez's partner, officer Joseph Kauser, who has also been with the St. Anthony police department for four years, was cleared of any wrongdoing in the incident.
On July 6, Castile, 32, was shot and killed by Yanez during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. Castile's fiancée, Diamond Reynolds — who was in the car with her 4-year-old daughter — live-streamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting on Facebook, and the incident contributed to protests about police shootings nationwide.
Choi said Yanez pulled Castile over because of a broken tail light, and because he also thought Castile may have been involved in a past robbery, "just because he had a wide-set nose." Choi firmly stated Wednesday that Castile was not a suspect in that case.
Yanez ran Castile's license plate, found that the car was licensed to Castile and not stolen, and that there were no warrants for his arrest. He turned his lights on, and "Castile immediately complied," Choi said, noting that Castile came to a complete stop at the curb 12 seconds later.
Roughly a minute later, Yanez shot Castile seven times. The entire incident and its aftermath was captured on the squad car's dash camera, which included audio.
In that minute, Choi said Yanez approached the car, and was aware — according to his later statements — that he saw Castile was buckled in, and that there was a child in the back seat. Castile's arm was over the steering wheel, and both his hands were in view.
Yanez came to the driver's-side window and exchanged words with Castile. After Castile handed over his insurance card, he "calmly and in an non-threatening matter informed Yanez: 'Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me,'" Choi said.
Before Castile could finish what he was saying, Yanez interrupted and replied, "OK,' and put his hand on his right holster before adding, "don't reach for it then."
Castile tried to respond, but was interrupted by Yanez, who again said, "Don't pull it out."
Castile responded, "I'm not pulling it out," and Reynolds, beside him, said, "He's not pulling it out," but Yanez screamed, a third time, "Don't pull it out," and pulled out his gun while reaching into the vehicle, before firing seven times.
Choi said Castile's dying words were, "I wasn't reaching for it." Reynolds yelled, "He wasn't reaching for it," and Yanez again screamed, "Don't pull it out!"
Reynolds replied: "He wasn't," to which Yanez yelled: "Don't move. F--k."
Castile died at the Hennepin County Medical Center.
"We believe Castile never removed nor tried to remove his handgun from his front right pocket, which was a foot deep," Choi said, adding that Yanez's partner, Kauser, told investigators that he did not see Castile make any sudden movements and was surprised by the gunshots. Kauser never touched or unholstered his weapon.
The gun was removed from Castile's pocket by paramedics, who discovered it as they turned his body, Choi said. The gun had a magazine, but there was no round in the chamber. Also recovered was Castile's permit to carry a pistol.
"I would submit that no reasonable officer knowing, seeing or hearing what officer Yanez did would have used deadly force," Choi said.
Immediately after the shooting, Yanez said that he did not know where the gun was and that Castile didn't say, Choi said. But the officer later said Castile reached between his right leg and the car's center console and turned his shoulder to block Yanez's view, which prompted Yanez to fear for his and his partner's lives.
Choi called those statements "inconsistent."
Deadly force under state law
In late September, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension finished their investigation of the incident and turned it over to Choi, who has been reviewing it with help from the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI.
Choi has repeatedly acknowledged that according to state law, those defending police officers involved in fatal shootings have to prove only that police perceived that they or others were in significant danger.
State law deems such use of deadly force to be justified only "when necessary to protect the peace officer or another from apparent death or great bodily harm." The key word being "apparent."
"It is a very difficult standard, but there is also an aspect in which the actions have to be reasonable," Choi said in July.
On Wednesday, he added that "It's not enough for a police officer to merely express a subjective fear of death," and said Castile was "respectful and compliant" during the stop.
Also Wednesday, Choi said he would be deputizing an attorney from the U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis to help him prosecute the charges under state law.
Choi also said he would not be releasing the video from the police dashboard camera until the criminal case was concluded.
Choi has said that to his knowledge his office had never prosecuted an officer in a fatal shooting. In the past, he has always used a grand jury to decide whether to prosecute in such cases.
Retired FBI agent Larry Brubaker told the Pioneer Press that in the 36 years of Minnesota police shootings that he reviewed, grand juries or prosecutors found all the cases to be legally justified and no charges were filed against any officers involved.
A representative of Castile's family said they were "emphatically" pleased with Choi's decision.
"Without a doubt, we're pleased," said Clarence Castile, Philando's uncle, shortly after the county attorney's announcement.
"We need some time to digest this," he later added. "Let us come down from the clouds a little bit, so to speak."
Jason Sole, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, said: "I'm not accustomed to getting justice ... I'm really in a tizzy right now, but I'm glad Choi stepped up and did the right thing."
Grand juries, Sole said, "don't indict. ... Grand juries — that's where cases go to die."
Nekima Levy-Pounds, a former head of the Minneapolis NAACP who is now running for mayor there — and also was a prominent figure in the protests following Castile's shooting — called Choi's decision "a huge first step, but it's just a first step."
"The moment that I started to weep was the moment I heard about Philando's last words," she said, adding that she agreed with the charge of manslaughter, noting attorneys have to charge only what they feel they can prove.
John Thompson, Castile's friend and co-worker at St. Paul Public Schools, where Castile was a nutrition services supervisor for J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet school, also said the decision surprised him.
"I was prepared, as a black man, to come here and witness (Choi) say, 'We have no charges to bring against this officer,'" Thompson said. "What John Choi did was say: 'Today, this is the new norm. We're not having that. ... We're not having that in Minnesota at all.' "
Yanez, who is married with a young child, had no-trespassing signs on the lawn of his Vadnais Heights home Wednesday, barring reporters from approaching those inside for comment. His family members also could not be reached.
He became a licensed police officer in 2011 and joined the St. Anthony police force about four years ago. There is no record of complaints filed against him, and his criminal record consists of two traffic violations.
St. Anthony city officials said in a statement following Choi's announcement that "we have confidence that justice will be served," but wanted to refrain from any additional comments "that could hinder a fair and impartial determination. We reaffirm our commitment to help heal this painful community experience through community engagement and continuous efforts to create positive change."
The status of Yanez, who is on paid administrative leave, has not changed as of Wednesday.
The Minnesota chapter of the National Latino Peace Officers Association, of which Yanez is a member, wants Yanez "to have a fair and impartial and unbiased trial," said John Lozoya, the association's public information officer.
Lozoya said he hasn't spoken to Yanez since the shooting, but "I know he's pretty much been keeping to himself because of the pressures and the stresses that have been brought on to his family."
He last saw Yanez perhaps a month before the Castile shooting, and said, "My exposure to him has always been he's a good man." He said Wednesday that his opinion of Yanez hasn't changed.
Lozoya said he couldn't speak for other officers about what went through their minds when they heard Choi's announcement, but he said it caused him "some angst."
"For me personally, it would probably cause me to second guess myself, which it should — it should cause a little bit of angst to maybe re-evaluate myself," said Lozoya, who has worked in law enforcement for more than 30 years, most of them as a St. Paul police officer. He's currently a St. Paul police senior commander.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said in a statement Wednesday that he had "tremendous respect" for Choi, adding that he was "confident that his (Choi's) decision was grounded in a thorough investigation of the facts and a deep commitment to upholding his public responsibility."
Gov. Mark Dayton called Choi's decision an "important step toward the determination of justice in this awful tragedy," and added, "The judicial process must now resolve the proper outcome."
Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association — the largest association representing officers in the state — said he was "disappointed" by Choi's decision, and expected Yanez to plead not guilty.
"No one can speak for Officer Yanez as to what he actually encountered and what he feared that evening," Flaherty added. "We hope all people can understand that and refrain from judgment."
Choi ended his news conference with a further call for patience from the community.
A former city attorney for St. Paul and the first Asian-American to hold the position, he was elected as county attorney in 2010. During that election, Choi said, "We have to understand as prosecutors the fine line that exists between the investigating agency and the prosecution office. ... Your job is not to make the police happy."
Reporters Tad Vezner, Mara H. Gottfried, Sarah Horner, Tory Cooney and Rachel E. Stassen-Berger of the Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner, contributed to this report.