A jury found St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez not guilty Friday in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile, whose livestreamed death during a traffic stop stunned a nation.
Castile’s family called the decision proof of a dysfunctional criminal justice system, while prosecutors cautioned the public to respect the jury’s verdict “because that is the fundamental premise of the rule of law.”
“I am so disappointed in the state of Minnesota,” Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, said at a news conference shortly after the verdict was read in court about 2:45 p.m. “My son loved this state. He had one tattoo on his body and it was of the Twin Cities — the state of Minnesota with TC on it. My son loved this city and this city killed my son. And the murderer gets away.”
Hours later, at the tail end of a protest march through the streets of St. Paul, hundreds of people headed out on Interstate 94 at Dale, shutting down the freeway. Over the course of about an hour, the crowd thinned out and was moved to a ramp near Marion before State Patrol officers moved in after 12:30 a.m. Saturday and began making arrests. Among those arrested was Susan Du, a reporter for City Pages who was covering the protest.
The decision came on the last day of a three-week trial in a case that had been closely watched ever since Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, livestreamed the brutal aftermath on Facebook.
The jury of five women and seven men reached its verdict after about 30 hours of deliberations over five days. They appeared stalled Wednesday, and were called into the courtroom and asked to continue deliberations. Juror Dennis Ploussard said the jury was deadlocked 10 for acquittal, two for conviction until Friday afternoon.
“This was very, very difficult for all of us,” Ploussard said Friday afternoon in an interview at his home. “This was a very, very trying case.” Ploussard declined to identify the holdouts but said they were not the two people of color on the jury.
Defense attorney Earl Gray leaned over and squeezed Yanez’s shoulders after the first not guilty verdict was read for the manslaughter charge. After the last two not guilty verdicts were read for reckless discharge of a firearm, Valerie Castile stood up from the front-row seat she had occupied throughout the trial, yelled an expletive and walked past several deputies, breaking with strict orders issued minutes earlier by Ramsey County District Judge William H. Leary III that no one was to leave until after he ended the hearing.
Several of Castile’s supporters cried and filed out after Valerie Castile as about 13 sheriff’s deputies stood watch over the proceeding.
“Seven times!” one woman exclaimed, referring to the number of shots Yanez fired into Castile’s car. Five rounds struck Castile; two of them tore through his heart.
Jurors showed little reaction while the verdicts were read and were quickly escorted out a private side door. Yanez’s mother cried and hugged Gray before Yanez and his family were whisked away through the same door, eventually leaving in a van that departed from the courthouse’s nonpublic indoor garage.
Thomas Kelly, one of Yanez’s attorneys, said his client was vindicated by the jury’s decision.
“We’re not celebrating anything here because this was a tragedy and we’re mindful of that,” he said.
Shortly afterward, the city of St. Anthony issued a statement on its website saying it would no longer employ Yanez as a police officer.
“The City of St. Anthony has concluded that the public will be best served if Officer Yanez is no longer a police officer in our city,” the statement read. “The city intends to offer Officer Yanez a voluntary separation agreement to help him transition to another career.”
Kelly said he was unsure of Yanez’s future plans, but acknowledged “it might be difficult” were he to continue his job in St. Anthony.
“Because he has such a good reputation within the law enforcement community I’m sure if he wanted to find another department he would not have any difficulty,” Kelly said.
Reynolds did not attend the verdict reading, but her attorney, Larry Rogers, said she was “close by” and quickly informed of the verdict. She was devastated, he said.
“She lost somebody very important to her,” Rogers said. “Her life was in danger. Her daughter’s life was in danger. And this verdict says that’s OK.”
Reynolds, who testified at trial and attended closing arguments Monday, issued a written statement through Rogers’ office saying that Castile was following the officer’s orders to retrieve his driver’s license when he was killed.
“I am incredibly disappointed with the jury’s verdict,” Reynolds said. “…It is a sad state of affairs when this type of criminal conduct is condoned simply because Yanez is a policeman. God help America.”
Yanez was the first Minnesota police officer in modern history to be charged with shooting and killing a civilian. Eight months before Castile was killed, Jamar Clark, a 23-year-old black man, was fatally shot during a scuffle with two Minneapolis police officers who were not charged. His death sparked weeks of protest in north Minneapolis. Both cases were in a wave of high-profile police shootings of black men that created unrest across the country.
Yanez, 29, was acquitted of felony manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm for killing Castile, 32, July 6 in Falcon Heights, and endangering his passengers, Reynolds, and her daughter, then 4. Reynolds’ Facebook Live video of Castile’s death captured worldwide attention.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi’s office declined Friday to release squad dashcam footage of the shooting but said it could be available within a week.
The U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Minnesota, which designated federal prosecutor Jeffrey Paulsen to assist with the case, issued a statement Friday saying they are “assessing whether any additional federal review is justified.”
Prosecutors argued that Yanez, who is Mexican-American, racially profiled Castile, a black man, when he stopped him for a nonworking brake light. Yanez testified that he also wanted to investigate whether Castile was a suspect in the armed robbery of a nearby convenience store four days earlier. Castile was never connected to the robbery.
Defense attorneys argued that Castile was culpably negligent in the shooting because he volunteered that he possessed a gun without disclosing that he had a permit to carry it, that he reached for it instead of keeping his hands visible, and that he was high on marijuana, rendering him incapable of following Yanez’s order not to reach for the gun. Yanez testified last week that he fired because he feared for his life.
A gun was recovered from Castile’s right front shorts pocket as medics and police prepared to move him onto a backboard. Castile had a permit to carry the handgun.
Two hours after the verdict was read, Choi stood alongside the three prosecutors who tried the case: Paulsen, Rick Dusterhoft and Clayton Robinson. Choi said that although he was disappointed with the verdict, it was an integral function of the criminal justice system.
“We gave it our best shot, we really did,” Choi said. “We were fighting for the integrity of this process.”
Choi urged people to pray for the Castile family. He also tried to shore up any fallout the case may have had with law enforcement, saying that the trial was about one officer’s actions, not an indictment on “law enforcement as a whole.”
Choi declined to say whether his prosecutors should have played an hourlong interview Yanez gave to investigators from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) during the state’s case. Prosecutors told jurors at trial that Yanez used “it” several times instead of “gun” or “firearm” in the interview recorded the day after the shooting, proof that he never saw Castile’s gun.
But prosecutors didn’t play the audio recording during their three-day case, which is the common practice. They tried unsuccessfully to play it during the defense’s case in an attempt to catch Yanez contradicting himself. Leary denied the move.
“I’ll have a chance to maybe address that” in the future, Choi said. “But I don’t really want to get into the play-by-play of going backward with respect to the trial.”
Valerie Castile didn’t hold back in her critique of the system, shifting from the calm she displayed throughout the trial to a vociferous display of indignation.
“There has always been a systemic problem in the state of Minnesota, and me thinking, common sense that we would get justice,” she said. “But nevertheless the system continues to fail black people.”
Hours later, in a Facebook Live video — the same format used to broadcast her son’s death — she let loose. Broadcasting from the passenger seat of a vehicle, she unleashed an expletive-laden diatribe against police and the system that she said failed her son.
“I’ve been holding myself, trying to be strong and not say the wrong things because I already know how they get down,” she said. “I’m 61 years old, I’ve seen it, I’ve smelled it, I’ve heard it. Now you see exactly what these [expletives] think about us. They murdered my [expletive] son with his seat belt on, so what does that say to you? Now they got free rein to keep killing us anyway they want.”
Staff writers David Chanen, Matt McKinney and Brandon Stahl contributed to this report.
When radicalization lured two Somali teenagers … from Norway
Acclaimed Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad spent years researching what happened. Now her book, “Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad” is available in the United States.
Seierstad, who discusses her book Monday night at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, said she didn’t go looking for the story.
“The story actually came to me,” she said. “It was the father of the girls who actually wanted the story to be written.”
His name is Sadiq, a Somali man who worked for years to bring his family to Norway. He hoped for a better life. He thought things were going well, then everything collapsed when Ayan and Leila disappeared.
When the girls left home, their parents were in shock, Seierstad said. “They hadn’t understood what was this about. Why? And then as months went by and they got to learn more about radicalization, they realized that all the signs had been there. That the girls were like a textbook case of radicalization. And he [Sadiq] wanted the book to be written to warn others, to tell this story to warn other parents.”
It is a perplexing story. Ayan and Leila were bright, and opinionated. They didn’t put up with being pushed around.
“And that is somehow part of why they left, in their logic,” said Seierstad, adding that the girls were convinced Syria and ISIS offered a chance of eternal life.
“They believed that life here and now is not real life. Real life happens after death. And this life is only important as a test. So the better your score, the better you behave in this life, the better position you will have in heaven for eternity. So isn’t that better?”
Seierstad is known for her in-depth reporting. Her book “One of Us,” about Anders Breivik, the gunman who killed 77 people in Norway’s worst terror attack, is an international best-seller.
When published in Norway Seierstad said, “Two Sisters” became the top-selling book for two years running. What pleases her most is the breadth of her readership. She gets email from young Somali girls, and also from government officials who want to prevent future radicalization.
Ilhan Omar documentary among Minnesota projects headed to New York’s Tribeca Film Festival
STAR TRIBUNE — Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival will have more than a touch of Minnesota this year. Two projects shot largely in the state will be part of the event that runs from April 18-29 in New York City.
“A Time for Ilhan,” by documentary filmmaker Norah Shapiro, chronicles Ilhan Omar’s successful bid to win election to the Minnesota House of Representatives, making her the first Somali-American, Muslim woman to hold state office in the United States.
In addition, Rosemount native Naomi Ko will be shopping a pilot for a potential series. “Nice,” which was mostly shot in the Twin Cities, stars Ko as a young Korean-American woman who faces a crisis when she’s diagnosed with cancer. Ko, who appeared in the 2014 indie hit “Dear White People,” is hoping screenings at the festival will attract a streaming service or network that will green-light an entire season.
The festival, now in its 17th year, will also feature new documentaries about Gilda Radner and the New York Times, as well as high-profile feature films, including the sci-fi romance “Zoe,” starring Ewan McGregor, last seen showing off his Midwest accent in “Fargo.”
After charges in Justine Damond killing, racial dynamic remains a focal point
STAR TRIBUNE — To some, the question loomed large as a former Minneapolis police officer was charged in the killing of an unarmed woman: Would the charges — the first in a case involving a fatal shooting by police in recent Hennepin County history — have come if the officer hadn’t been black and Somali-American and the victim hadn’t been white?
An intense debate over the shooting’s uncommon racial dynamic has played out among police reform activists, in the city’s Somali malls and among the police department’s own officers. Even some passionate proponents of police accountability balked at celebrating the murder and manslaughter charges against Officer Mohamed Noor, saying they reflected the justice system’s racial bias as much as previous local decisions not to charge cops who kill in the line of duty. Some Somali-Americans worried their community, rather than the use of deadly force by an officer, will end up on trial.
But others said the charges are a clear win in the push for more scrutiny of police use of force and possibly the beginning of a tougher approach to law enforcement accountability. Noor shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 40-year-old Australian spiritual healer and meditation coach, minutes after she called police to report a suspected sexual assault in her southwest Minneapolis neighborhood.
“There have been numerous shootings that the community felt were unjustified and this one with Ms. Damond is one of them,” said Nathaniel Khaliq, past president of the St. Paul NAACP. “I hope it lowers the threshold for officers to be charged in deadly shootings.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced the charges Tuesday, more than eight months after Damond’s killing and nearly two years to the day after he declined to charge two white officers in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Jamar Clark. Damond’s family welcomed the charges, calling them “one step toward justice for this iniquitous act.”
Criticism of the charges
On the question of the Noor charges at Remix Barber and Beauty shop in Minneapolis Friday morning, the predominantly black clientele was in near-agreement: After years of pressure for more accountability in fatal officer shootings, a black cop had been made the fall guy. Customers and co-owner Chanda Tolbert said the charges came as no surprise given the races of the officer and the woman who was shot.
“Race has everything to do with it,” customer Teena Hill said. “It’s not a justice system for us.”
Reaction at nearby Jones and Jones Barber Shop, only a block from the site of Clark’s shooting in 2015, echoed that sentiment. “If it was a white police officer shooting a black man, he wouldn’t have been charged,” said Rob Hannah as he waited to get a haircut. “The system fails us a lot.”
Added owner A.J. Turner, “The Somali community needs to be in an uproar. I would be.”
Talk about race and perceived racial bias has lit up Somali community members’ social media accounts, animated coffee shop conversations and brought a couple of emotional impromptu community meetings in the days following the charges. Some have questioned whether Noor was treated differently from other cops who have killed in the line of duty, alleging a rush to judgment absent after other police shootings.
“A lot of the community is saying that if it’s Michael or David, he’s not going to be guilty today,” said Mahamed Cali, who runs KALY 101.7 FM, a Somali-American radio station.
After months of silence, the Somali American Police Association (SAPA) last week criticized the charges, suggesting Freeman had bowed to political pressure ahead of his re-election bid later this year. In an interview, Waheid Siraach, acting spokesman for SAPA, said the case raises legitimate questions about racial bias.
He pointed to former Police Chief Janeé Harteau’s news conference several days after the shooting in which she condemned Noor’s actions before an investigation had been completed. He also noted a cellphone video of Freeman criticizing the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for its handling of the case and telling activists in a taped conversation that to make a charging decision would be “the big present I’d like to see under the Christmas tree.”
“The aggressiveness, the ruthlessness with which Freeman went after this case, and personally Noor, it’s completely different from how they went after other cases,” Siraach said.
Privately, some Somali-American officers complained they were called in to testify before the grand jury simply because of their ethnicity. They spoke about several racially charged incidents in the department in the aftermath of Damond’s shooting, including disparaging comments about Somalis made by a white sergeant on Facebook, which were investigated last month.
Officers and community activists such as Omar Jamal also criticized Noor’s Tuesday firing, which they said sends a strong message to potential jurors. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Police Federation, usually an outspoken advocate of officers accused of wrongdoing, remained largely silent about the Noor matter for months.
Some in the Somali community worry about a broader backlash, noting feverish speculation in some corners of the internet and elsewhere that Noor’s religion and ethnicity motivated the shooting. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann called Noor an “affirmative-action hire by the hijab-wearing mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges,” and insinuated that Noor may have shot Damond for “cultural” reasons.
Others decried the case as a possible setback in law enforcement efforts to engage with the East African community and recruit officers from its ranks, an initiative that has received international recognition.
“A lot of young people wanted to be a police officer, but they’re rethinking it now,” said Cali, citing his own son as an example. “A lot of young people are saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be [the next] Mohamed.’ ”
Some prominent black police reform advocates are speaking out in Noor’s defense. Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist in Minneapolis, noted that 11 days before Damond was shot, on-duty New York City police officer Miosotis Familia was shot and killed as she sat in an RV police command vehicle in the Bronx. During roll calls across the country, Edwards said, officers were told to be on the lookout for situations in which they could be ambushed, to “have their weapons prepared.”
“In those tragic few seconds, officers were following their orders,” he said, adding, “Justice was not served, but I wasn’t surprised.”
Support for the charges
But the response to the charges in Twin Cities communities of color is far from uniform. For some, the bottom line is that a police officer is being held accountable in the death of an unarmed civilian. They feel the case has helped broaden the call for police and criminal justice reform — and could serve as a rallying cry for a community still reeling from the 2016 shooting death of St. Paul school cafeteria worker Philando Castile by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Yanez was acquitted last year on manslaughter charges.
Farhio Khalif, a Somali-American women’s advocate, said she welcomed the charges against Noor as a chance to get to the bottom of what happened the night Damond was killed.
“My solidarity is with the Damond family. Justine has to be given her justice,” she said.
Khalif says that to her, Noor was simply a Minneapolis officer who shot an unarmed woman, and she voiced disappointment that much has been made in the public discourse of his Somali-American background. She said she trusts that the justice system will handle the case without regard to Noor’s race and background.
Some black community advocates also said they are heartened by the charges.
“Just because racist white folks do terrible things to black folks, we don’t have to act like them,” said Mel Reeves, one of the leaders of an unsuccessful campaign pushing Freeman to indict two officers in the Clark shooting. “I don’t support wrong. Clearly, if officer Noor shot Justine Damond, he should be punished.”
All eyes now turn to Noor’s upcoming prosecution. The proliferation of video and other factors have increased pressure on prosecutors around the country to not only charge but convict officers involved in controversial shootings, according to Justin Nix, who has studied police use of force at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Yet, convictions remain uncommon.
Much remains unknown in the Damond case, which was not captured on video because the officers’ body cameras were turned off at the critical moment. Still, Nix said there appeared to be enough evidence to support charges, regardless of the victim and officer’s race.
“If you separate race from that and you just look at those facts, this is one of those very questionable cases in which charges might be pursued,” he said.
Staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report.