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.
Minnesota terror case shows challenge of predicting attacks
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — After Tnuza Jamal Hassan was stopped from flying to Afghanistan last September, she allegedly told FBI agents that she wanted to join al-Qaida and marry a fighter, and that she might even wear a suicide belt.
She also said she was angry at U.S. military actions overseas and admitted that she tried to encourage others to “join the jihad in fighting,” but she said she had no intention of carrying out an attack on U.S. soil, according to prosecutors. Despite her alleged admissions, she was allowed to go free.
Four months later, the 19-year-old was arrested for allegedly setting small fires on her former college campus in St. Paul in what prosecutors say was a self-proclaimed act of jihad. No one was hurt by the Jan. 17 fires at St. Catherine University, but her case raises questions about why she wasn’t arrested after speaking to the agents months earlier and shows the difficulty the authorities face in identifying real threats.
“She confessed to wanting to join al-Qaida and took action to do it by traveling overseas. Unless there are other circumstances that I’m not aware of, I would have expected that she would’ve been arrested,” said Jeffrey Ringel, a former FBI agent and Joint Terrorism Task Force supervisor who now works for a private security firm, the Soufan Group, and isn’t involved in Hassan’s case. “I think she would’ve met the elements of a crime.”
Authorities aren’t talking about the case and it’s not clear how closely Hassan was monitored before the fires, if at all. When asked if law enforcement should have intervened earlier, FBI spokesman Jeff Van Nest and U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Tasha Zerna both said they couldn’t discuss the case.
Counterterrorism experts, though, say it seems she wasn’t watched closely after the FBI interview, as she disappeared for days before the fires. But the public record in a case doesn’t always reveal what agents and prosecutors were doing behind the scenes.
Authorities are often second-guessed when someone on their radar carries out a violent act. Some cases, including Wednesday’s mass shooting at a Florida high school that killed 17 people, reveal missed signs of trouble. The FBI has admitted it made a mistake by failing to investigate a warning last month that the suspect, Nikolas Cruz, could be plotting an attack.
U.S. officials were also warned about Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev two years before his 2013 attack, though a review found it was impossible to know if anything could’ve been done differently to prevent it. And the FBI extensively investigated Omar Mateen, the gunman in the June 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. As part of an internal audit, then-FBI Director James Comey reviewed the case and determined it was handled well.
Hassan, who was born in the U.S., has pleaded not guilty to federal counts of attempting to provide material support to al-Qaida, lying to the FBI and arson. She also faces a state arson charge. One fire was set in a dormitory that has a day care where 33 children were present.
Although her attempts to set fires largely failed, Hassan told investigators she had expected the buildings to burn down and “she hoped people would get killed,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter said in court. He added that she was “self-radicalized” and became more stringent in her beliefs and focused on jihad.
Hassan’s attorney, Robert Sicoli, declined to talk about whether the family saw warnings. Her mother and sister declined to speak to The Associated Press.
According to prosecutors, Hassan tried to travel to Afghanistan on Sept. 19, making it as far as Dubai, United Arab Emirates, before she was stopped because she lacked a visa.
Prosecutors say that when the agents interviewed Hassan on Sept. 22, she admitted she tried to join al-Qaida, saying she thought she’d probably get married, but not fight. When pressed, she allegedly told investigators she guessed she would carry out a suicide bombing if she had to do it but she wouldn’t do anything in the U.S. because she didn’t know whom to target.
Hassan admitted that she wrote a letter to her roommates in March encouraging the women to “join the jihad in fighting,” prosecutors allege. The letter was initially reported to campus security, and it’s unclear when it was given to the FBI or if the agency made contact with Hassan before the September interview.
It’s also unknown how closely U.S. authorities were monitoring Hassan between the interview and Dec. 29, when she was barred from traveling to Ethiopia with her mother. Prosecutors say at the time, Hassan had her sister’s identification and her luggage contained a coat and boots, which she wouldn’t have needed in Ethiopia’s warm climate.
Hassan later ran away from home and her family reported her missing Jan. 10. Her whereabouts were unknown until the Jan. 17 fires.
Ron Hosko, a retired assistant director of the FBI’s criminal division who has no link to Hassan’s case, said that based on an AP reporter’s description of it, “I would certainly look at this person, not knowing more, as somebody who would be of interest to the FBI.” However he cautioned that the public doesn’t know the extent of the agency’s efforts to monitor Hassan, including whether she was under surveillance, what sort of background investigation was done and how agents might have assessed her capacity to follow through on a threat. He also said the FBI might have made decisions based on her mental capacity.
“Not every subject requires 24/7 FBI surveillance,” he said. The reality is that hard decisions on resources are being made constantly, with the biggest perceived threats receiving the most attention.
“I’m sure there are plenty of days where they hope they are right and they are keeping their fingers crossed,” he added.
Stephen Vladeck, professor of law at the University of Texas, said monitoring possible threats is a delicate balance, and law enforcement can’t trample civil rights while trying to prevent violence.
“This is a circle that can’t be squared,” he said. “We are never going to keep tabs on every single person who might one day pose a threat.”
Minneapolis flier warned against Muslim ‘inflirtation’ in local politics
CITY PAGES — Last Tuesday, the day of Minnesota’s political party caucuses, anti-Islamic fliers signed by “your neighborhood infidel” appeared throughout Minneapolis’s Cedar-Riverside Neighborhood, which has a high concentration of Somali-Americans.
The typo-ridden fliers read that a new “MEGA-MN organiation [sic] would like to give a notice that we will not tolerate any inflitartion [sic] from sharia-loving muslims at our prescient [sic] caucus.” The statement continued with equally inflammatory and grammatically deficient lines.
“Clearly, forms of politics has led your country to a shithole state, but this is AMERICA and we will not stand for you muslims bastard. [sic].”
At the top, the flier featured a “TRUMP Make America Great Again” banner.
The flier went public thanks to a tweet from DFL State Rep. Ilhan Omar, who posted a picture of one the day after caucuses were held.
In a subsequent tweet, Omar replied to someone’s question to say the fliers had been reported to the police and the FBI.
Minneapolis Police Department spokesman John Elder said police are aware of the incident and monitoring it, but no action had come from the fliers.
“At this point, from what we know, there has been nothing threatening,” he said.
History Theatre’s ‘Crack in the Sky’ shows the struggles immigrants face
Last Sunday afternoon, as most of America was fixated on downtown Minneapolis and the Super Bowl, a group of Somali-American and African-American actors quietly milled about the History Theatre stage in downtown St. Paul and talked about the importance of storytelling and their own families’ immigration tales.
It was one of the last rehearsals for “Crack in the Sky,” a new play based on Ahmed Ismail Yusuf’s life story and his 2013 book, “Somalis in Minnesota,” that makes its world premiere Saturday at the History Theatre. And while Yusuf’s story of a young shepherd boy’s journey from Mogadishu to Minneapolis is getting the full theatrical treatment, the focus of the play is on the power of the written word.
“A book can change your life, and teachers are not your enemies; they are your best friends,” said Yusuf, who learned to read and speak English when he came to the United States from Somalia as a high school dropout in the late 1980s. He discovered Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and devoured it over two weeks, using the Somali-English dictionary to translate Angelou’s poetic words about overcoming hardship and seizing the day.
“Ahmed is really interesting, because a lot of Somalia people today travel here to seek refuge in Minneapolis,” said Ashwanti Ford, the actress who plays both Yusuf’s mother and Angelou. “Ahmed moved to the States before all the terror and the war broke out in Somalia. He came here to seek an education, and when he was here the horrible things started happening in his country. So this is taking place in the ‘90s, when he hasn’t seen his family in years or months, versus today, when we can be a Facebook click away from seeing someone.
“He’s inspired by Maya Angelou to write, because he read her books and he said to himself, ‘If she has overcome all of this stuff in America, then I can overcome what I’m going through now and I can write my story.’ So it’s him, coming to America and seeking an education, and learning that he wants to be a writer. Through teachers and family members, he learns that he wants to tell his story, a really significant story that is so empowering, and inspire people to keep pushing forward and remain resilient. When I got the call to audition, I was so excited because I’ve always loved Maya Angelou. My mother was a poet; she has all her books.”
‘So many hoops to go through’
“A Crack in the Sky” is being staged at a time in America when Donald Trump — who disparaged the Somali community in Minnesota when he said, “Everybody’s reading about the disaster taking place in Minnesota” just before he won the White House — has issued travel bans and made immigration difficult at best.
“The play is not exactly confronting it, but it shows the struggles an immigrant faces,” said Yusuf. “There are so many hoops to go through that maybe a normal American, an ordinary person, might not even notice it. But it is just quite out there for an immigrant. An immigrant is not exactly the leeches that Donald Trump has painted them to be. They are people who are contributing; they are people who are appreciative of the opportunities they have when they are here.”
“I just hope that when people come to our play that they will realize that not everyone decides to wake up one day, pack up their bags and go, ‘OK, I’m going to emigrate. I’m going to leave everything I’ve known my whole life behind,’” said actor Mohammed Sheikh, who portrays the young Yusuf. “Nobody does that. It’s not an easy thing that you can just decide. It’s not a road trip, you know? It’s a decision that can cost you your life, that can cost you identity, that can cost you happiness, that can cost you just about everything.
“And I just hope that when people come, they will realize that regardless of our skin color, regardless of what we believe in, regardless of how we pray, we’re all fighting the same battle, which is to survive to see another day.”
A Somali proverb
“A Crack in the Sky” gets its title from the Somali proverb, “If people come together, they can even mend a crack in the sky.” Not only does the play detail Yusuf’s immigration tale, it tells the story of what many Somalians and Somali-Americans have faced coming to America over the last two decades. These days, however, daily headlines about deportation and racism provide a stark background to Yusuf’s mostly joyous tale of coming to America.
“I’m getting something more valuable than any prize” by being part of “A Crack in the Sky,” said Sheikh. “Lessons, motivations, and the determination to succeed as a first-generation immigrant in this beautiful country.”
He continued his monologue animatedly, as if writing his own story for the stage.
“I’ve been in the United States for three years, and I’ve worked for six months now. I’m basically going through the roller-coaster right now that the character that I’m playing is going through: sending money back, being here, young in your 20s, having ambitions to accomplish a lot, but at the same time the little that you’re making, or the little that you’re getting, you have to divide it into many portions, you know?
“So my family is back in Africa, my mom and my siblings are back in Africa; my dad is here, so it saves me a lot of the trouble that my character experiences. I haven’t seen my youngest siblings or mom for three years. I want to see them, I want to touch them, I want to be with them, but hey, it is what it is. And that’s exactly the same thing Ahmed has dealt with. There are a lot of scenarios and plot twists that I can relate to.”
Angelou wrote, “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible,” and, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Both truths will be brought to life through March 4 at the History Theater, which has been telling immigrant stories for 40 years.
Impact of travel bans
“I was hoping to have my family join me this year, but with the travel bans going on, I might not be able to for two or three years or until Trump leaves office,” said Sheikh. “It has a huge impact, to be honest with you. A lot of us are trying to bring our families over for the sake of giving them a safe sanctuary, for our kids to become someone, to study without worrying about gun violence or the city being overtaken by another militia.
“Trump is a hateful person, that’s all I have to say. He’s a hateful person and whoever agrees with him or sides with him, I would hope they would evaluate the humanity and look deep within because you can only imagine I haven’t seen my baby sister since she was 5. She turned 7 last month and she’s, ‘When are you going to come visit me? What are you bringing me?’
“She thinks it’s just a bus away or a simple plane ride, but it’s a lot more than that. Now I’m forced to wait until I get my citizenship because with everything that’s going on today. … You know, I’m Muslim, I’m young, I’m black, my country’s on the ban list, my grandmother’s 78 and I haven’t seen her for 17 years. My grandfather’s 91 and I haven’t seen him since I was born; he’s the last grandparent I have from my mother’s side.
“I have my green card, I could go. But my family keeps on telling me, ‘No, you don’t have to do that with everything, the FBI agents, the undercovers, the travel ban, everything, just wait until your citizenship.’ It’s painful, but I have to do it.
“I’m grateful, man. It could have been worse. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before we see another day.”