Joey Jackson explains significance of charges officer faces Philando Castile's death
He says amid recent police shootings, officer's state of mind matters more than ever
Editor’s Note: Joey Jackson is a criminal defense attorney and a legal analyst for CNN and HLN. The views expressed here are his own.
St. Anthony, Minnesota, police Officer Jeronimo Yanez appeared in court last week to face charges in the killing of African-American motorist Philando Castile during a traffic stop in July. Within one minute of the traffic stop, the officer reportedly shot Castile seven times, while the man’s fiancée, Diamond Reynolds, looked on in the passenger seat and her 4-year-old daughter did likewise from a child seat in the rear.
Following the shooting, Reynolds immediately began live-streaming on Facebook, which sent the events viral across social media, where millions observed her surprisingly calm, respectful and compliant demeanor in stark contrast with that of Yanez, who appeared harried, frazzled and out of control.
Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter and two felony counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. The first charge relates to the nature of the officer’s conduct in the killing of Castile and carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of $20,000. The remaining two charges focus on the danger created by Yanez in the harm that could have been caused to Reynolds and her daughter when he began firing his weapon. He also faces a penalty of up to five years in prison and $10,000 on the other charges.
At his recent court appearance, Yanez pleaded not guilty to the charges, and he will remain free during court proceedings without having to post any bail.
The case comes at particularly tense time for police officers and the communities they live in and serve. Just last weekend, the already frayed relationship got even worse. On Sunday, two 20-year police officers were shot.
In San Antonio, Detective Benjamin Marconi was shot twice in the head as he sat in his patrol car outside police headquarters. That same day in St. Louis, a 46-year-old police sergeant was shot twice in the face. Fortunately, he is expected to survive.
And Sunday’s violence didn’t stop there. In Sanibel, Florida, an officer was shot and injured following a traffic stop. When evaluating these instances of violence – as well as the retaliatory and senseless killing of five Dallas officers last summer – it’s clear to see this deadly divide warrants immediate action.
The charges against Yanez are not being brought in a vacuum. The officer’s defense team will certainly want to point to examples such as last weekend’s violence against police to focus a potential jury’s attention on the overwhelming dangers that law enforcement faces. And while it’s highly unlikely that any judge would permit defense attorneys to refer to these occurrences, they are certainly hoping that both a judge and a jury are mindful of the deadly nature of every police officer’s job, because their client’s state of mind when he approached Castile’s car is of critical importance to the case – and central to why Yanez wasn’t charged with murder and how strong the case against him really is.
The reasons why Ramsey County Attorney John Choi opted to pursue a manslaughter charge instead of murder require not only an understanding of the law but also of the lessons learned from similar cases preceding this one.
In that regard, the fact that a local prosecutor is pursuing charges against an officer at all is a pretty significant development. In recent years, there have been police shootings of African-American males throughout the country that have taken place without redress or consequence.
In July 2014, New York Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Eric Garner in a chokehold that proved fatal. An investigation ensued that resulted in no charges against the police. Months later in Ohio, Officer Timothy Loehmann shot Tamir Rice dead at a Cleveland park. Again, an investigation ensued, which concluded with no charges being filed.
In contrast, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby pursued charges against six Baltimore police officers involved in the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who succumbed from injuries he sustained during his encounter with police. After the first three officers went to trial and were acquitted this year, the charges against the remaining three were ultimately dismissed. While the charges leveled by the prosecutor played well to a public thirsty for justice, they fell flat in a court of law, where charges must be met with enough proof to sustain them beyond a reasonable doubt.
In the Minnesota case, Choi, the county attorney, is comfortable and confident with making the legal argument in a court of law with a charge of manslaughter that Yanez used his firearm in a cavalier and unnecessary way. Unlike a murder charge, where Choi would have to convince a judge or jury that Yanez acted intentionally, with premeditation and deliberation in taking Castile’s life, manslaughter holds no such requirement. Instead, he need only show that Yanez acted unreasonably and in an extremely careless and unjustified way. On the issue of the two counts of intentionally discharging his firearm, all a prosecutor would have to show is that Yanez endangered the life of Reynolds and her daughter when he unreasonably shot into the car. Therefore, Choi’s ability to meet his burden of proof is far more favorable than if he charged Yanez with murder.
In court, Choi need only hammer home that Yanez’s actions were dangerous, careless and unreasonable. That should not be hard, as Yanez’s explanation for the traffic stop – a broken taillight – does not appear to be accurate. And even accepting that as a legitimate basis for the stop, the defense will have to explain how a broken taillight justified Castile’s death.
The other reason proffered by Yanez as a basis for the car stop was that Castile matched the description of a robbery suspect from four days earlier. This, the defense will argue, is relevant because it explains why Yanez was in a heightened state of readiness and alert, and the reason why he felt the need to act so quickly and decisively. The legal problem remains, however, that to use deadly force, there must be an imminent threat that could produce death or severe bodily injury, and the response to that threat must be proportionate.
Castile immediately pulled over curbside upon being signaled to do so, handed his insurance card to Yanez upon request and even alerted Yanez that he had a firearm – which he had a valid permit to carry. There is no indication he was belligerent, noncompliant or threatening. There is also no evidence that Castile made any sudden movements.
In fact, Yanez’s partner, Joseph Kauser, who approached Castile’s car from the passenger side, has said he was absolutely surprised when Yanez began shooting and noted that he did so without any indication he ever saw a weapon.
Under these circumstances then, it is a heavy lift for the defense to argue credibly that the shooting was justified. Not only did Kauser fail to see the necessity of using deadly force, he expressed utter surprise that Yanez felt compelled to do so. Regardless of other examples of violence committed by or against police, this speaks volumes as to Yanez’s actions being unreasonable, unnecessary and contrary to well-established principles of law. The law demands and indeed requires that Yanez have his day in court. When that day comes, however, he will have an awful lot of explaining to do.