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Minnesota Officer Acquitted in Killing of Philando Castile

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MITCH SMITH

ST. PAUL — The images had transfixed people around the world: A woman live-streaming the aftermath of a police shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, and narrating the searing, bloody scene that was unfolding around her.

On Friday, a jury here acquitted the Minnesota police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, of all charges in shooting, which happened in July 2016 and left Mr. Castile dead, raising the national debate over police conduct toward black people. Officer Yanez, an officer for the suburb of St. Anthony, had been charged with second-degree manslaughter and endangering safety by discharging a firearm in the shooting.

The verdict was announced in a tense courtroom here late Friday afternoon, after five days of deliberations, and the officer was led quickly out of the courtroom, as were the 12 jurors. Mr. Castile’s family, which had nervously watched the proceedings from the front row, abruptly left as well.

“My son loved this city, and this city killed my son,” Mr. Castile’s mother, Valerie, said as she stood on a corner outside the courthouse afterward. “And a murderer gets away. Are you kidding me right now?”

The case against Officer Yanez — believed to be the first time in Minnesota history that an officer was charged in an on-duty fatal shooting — hinged on one central question: Did the officer have reason to fear that Mr. Castile was reaching for a gun that he had acknowledged having with him when he was pulled over by the officer?

Officer Yanez testified that he feared Mr. Castile was grabbing for the gun, but Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, said he had merely been reaching for his identification to give the officer.

Though there was dashboard camera video of the events, as well as the live-stream video that Ms. Reynolds began taking after the shooting, there was no video clearly revealing the crucial moments in the front seat of Mr. Castile’s car — and how precisely he had moved his hands before the officer fired.

The shooting set off large marches across the twin cities and, at one point, blocked off a major highway. It drew notice from President Barack Obama, as well as the governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, who asked aloud: “Would this have happened if the driver were white, if the passengers were white?”

Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, arriving in court last week. (David Joles/Star Tribune via AP)

On Friday, as news of the acquittal filtered out, a small group of protesters gathered outside the courthouse, expressing anger and dismay. “It’s not us that were on trial, it was the system that was on trial,” said Mel Reeves, a community activist.

Later in the evening, protesters gathered at the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul to express their displeasure with the verdict. The police estimated that 1,500 people set off from there on a march, causing traffic backups and transit delays.

Mike Padden, a lawyer representing Ms. Reynolds, said he was surprised and disappointed by the verdict. “For those who are committed to the idea of leveling the playing field with law enforcement and the citizenry, it’s a big blow,” he said.

John J. Choi, the prosecutor who announced the charges against Officer Yanez, said on Friday that “this verdict brings a lot of hurt and pain and deep-seated frustration for a lot of people in this community.” Mr. Choi said he was disappointed in the verdict, and believed that Mr. Castile “did nothing that justified the taking of his life.”

“We gave it our best shot,” said Mr. Choi, the Ramsey County attorney. “We really did.”

The acquittal was the latest example of charges against an officer, but not a conviction. In recent years, officers in Cleveland, Pennsylvania and Tulsa, Okla., have been found not guilty of manslaughter. Elsewhere, including Cincinnati and South Carolina, jurors have deadlocked on charges after a fatal shooting and failed to deliver any verdict at all.

Among some advocates for police officers, the outcome was met with approval.

Earl Gray, a lawyer for Officer Yanez, said he was gratified with the outcome, but frustrated that charges were ever brought.

“The state didn’t have a case in the first place,” Mr. Gray said in an interview on Friday evening after the acquittal. “But because of the protests and the political pressure, I suppose you’d call it, he was charged and he had to go into court and defend himself.”

Mr. Gray said Officer Yanez was “still very shook up” after the verdict, but “extremely happy it’s over.”

“He wants to get on with his life,” Mr. Gray said.

As the officer left the courtroom, Judge William H. Leary III had said, “Mr. Yanez, you will now be excused from this matter with no further obligation to this court. Good luck to you.”

Officer Jeronimo Yanez. (David Joles/Star Tribune via AP, File)

Despite the verdict, though, officials with the city of St. Anthony, where Officer Yanez has worked for several years, issued a statement late Friday saying that they had “concluded that the public will be best served if Officer Yanez is no longer a police officer in our city.” They said they planned to offer him a “voluntary separation agreement.” In the meantime, the city said, he will not be returning to patrol.

Through a week of testimony in the trial, the case had centered chiefly on the conflicting accounts of what Mr. Castile, a longtime school cafeteria worker whom Officer Yanez had pulled over for a broken taillight at twilight on a summer evening, was doing before he was shot.

Prosecutors said Officer Yanez had created a dangerous situation, perceived a threat where none existed and, in addition to killing Mr. Castile, almost wounded Ms. Reynolds and her young daughter in the back seat.

“He was making assumptions and jumping to conclusions without engaging in the dialogue he was trained to have in a citizen encounter like this,” Jeffrey Paulsen, a prosecutor, said in closing arguments. “And that’s his fault, not the fault of Philando Castile.”

Mr. Castile was licensed to carry a gun and was recorded on a dashboard camera video calmly telling Officer Yanez that he had a weapon in the car. Officer Yanez told him not to reach for the weapon, and Mr. Castile and Ms. Reynolds both tried to assure the officer that he was not doing so. Within seconds, Officer Yanez fired seven shots.

Prosecutors said Mr. Castile had mentioned his gun to allay concerns, not to threaten the officer or escalate the situation. “If someone were just about to reach in their pocket and pull out a gun and shoot an officer, that’s the last thing they would say,” Mr. Paulsen said.

Mr. Gray, the defense lawyer, said Officer Yanez had to react quickly to what he believed was an imminent threat. He said Officer Yanez smelled marijuana, believed that Mr. Castile matched the description of a recent robbery suspect and saw him grabbing a gun.

“We have him ignoring his commands. He’s got a gun. He might be the robber. He’s got marijuana in his car,” Mr. Gray told jurors. “Those are the things in Officer Yanez’s head.”

Officer Yanez did not tell Mr. Castile about the robbery suspicions, only that his brake light was out. But Mr. Gray said that this approach made sense, and that Officer Yanez had acted reasonably given his training and what he knew that night.

“He did what he had to do,” Mr. Gray said, adding that the situation was “tragic.”

The jury of 12, including two black people, had to sort through the competing narratives. Both prosecutors and defense lawyers said the video footage supported their version of events.

At Officer Yanez’s trial, in this small courtroom in downtown St. Paul, defense lawyers made repeated mention of Mr. Castile’s and Ms. Reynolds’s use of marijuana. The drug was found in Mr. Castile’s car after the shooting, and Mr. Gray said that Mr. Castile had been under the influence of marijuana and delayed in his reactions at the time of the shooting.

“We’re not saying that Philando Castile was going to shoot Officer Yanez,” Mr. Gray said. “What we’re saying is that he did not follow orders. He was stoned.”

But Mr. Paulsen, the prosecutor, said that version of events was contradicted by video. He said footage showed that Mr. Castile was driving normally, pulled over quickly and was alert and courteous when talking to Officer Yanez. He accused the defense of blaming the victim.

“He offered no resistance,” Mr. Paulsen said of Mr. Castile. “He made no threats. He didn’t even complain about being stopped for such a minor offense.”

Crime

Ilaria Alpi case may be reopened

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(ANSA) – Rome, April 17 – New wiretaps could lead to the reopening of the case of the murders in the Somalia capital Mogadishu on March 20 1994 of TG3 reporter Ilaria Alpi and her cameraman Miran Hrovatin, judicial sources said Tuesday. The wiretaps are said to have been made in 2012 between Somali individuals talking in Italy about the deaths of Alpi and Hovratin, sources said.

The wiretaps were made in a Florence probe into the trafficking of trucks decommissioned by the Italian army from Italy to Somalia, judicial sources said.

Some 15 people have been placed under investigation in the probe and the indictment of four of them, all Somalis, has been requested, sources said.

The transcripts were sent from Florence prosecutors to Rome prosecutor Maria Rosaria Guglielmi and filed by her Tuesday with a preliminary investigations judge for a hearing set to determine whether to shelve the case as requested by Rome prosecutors last June.

Judge Andrea Fanelli, in light of the new wiretaps and documents field by Alpi’s family, adjourned the hearings until June 8.

Rome prosecutors will work on the transcripts sent by Florence colleagues over the coming weeks.

Alpi’s mother Luciana said she “took note” of the new evidence but said “i don’t want to get my hopes up”. A Somali man who spent nearly 17 years behind bars for the killings but was subsequently cleared, Hashi Omar Hassan, said “Ilaria’s family must have justice”. On March 30 Hassan got over three million euros in compensation for his wrongful conviction and time in jail.

In October 2016 a Perugia court reversed Hassan’s conviction.

Prosecutor Dario Razzi told the court Hassan “did not commit” the crime.

He was the only person convicted of the murders.

Alpi, 32, and Hrovatin, 45, were ambushed and shot in their jeep in Mogadishu by a seven-man commando on March 20, 1994.

Initially, it was thought that the journalist was murdered in revenge for clashes which had broken out between the militias of Somalia’s warlords and Italian peacekeepers.

But a 1999 book by Alpi’s parents called The Execution alleged that Alpi and Hrovatin were killed to stop them revealing what they knew about an international arms and toxic-waste ring implicating high-level political, military and economic figures in both countries.

The book accuses the Italian secret services of playing a major role in this ring.

In 2015 Ahmed Ali Rage, who was also known as Gelle and who was a key witness for the prosecution in the trial that led to the conviction, said that Hassan was “innocent”.

Rage told a new trial that he “never told anyone” Hassan was part of the murder commando. Hassan was released into the custody of social services in 2015 with 10 years to go on his 26-year sentence.

“Thank God it’s over,” said Hassan at the time.

Alpi’s mother Luciana, who backed Hassan’s battle against the miscarriage of justice, said that she was “happy” Hassan had been cleared, but added that she was “bitter and depressed” that the real culprits had not been brought to justice.

“It’s as if she and Miran Hrovatin died of the heat in Mogadishu,” Luciana Alpi told ANSA. “We don’t have the truth and I don’t think we ever will”.

Photos taken of the dead body of Alpi, who worked for public broadcaster RAI’s third channel, and a medical report on the deaths, along with other key evidence including Alpi’s notes, camera and video cassettes, mysteriously went missing on the journey back from Africa to Italy, fuelling suspicions of a cover-up.

Speaking to RAI Channel 3, Rage in February 2015 claimed that he was asked to testify against Hassan.

“I did not see who fired the shots,” he reportedly told RAI 3.

According to the Italian diplomat who investigated the case in Somalia, former ambassador Giuseppe Cassini, the driver who acted as a key witness for the prosecution was “an unreliable individual who would do anything to survive”.

Hassan, who travelled to Italy in 1998 to give evidence in a probe into brutality by Italian soldiers, was acquitted of involvement in the two murders at the end of a first trial in July 1999.

But he was found guilty by an appeals court in 2000 and sentenced to life in prison.

Italy’s supreme Cassation Court upheld the guilty verdict in October 2001 but reduced the sentence from life to 26 years because it said the crimes were not premeditated.

Hassan’s lawyers said he was not in Mogadishu at the time of the killing and was tricked into coming to Italy.

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Crime

Kansas bomb plot trial drawing to a close as testimony ends

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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The trial of three men accused of plotting to bomb an apartment complex housing Somali refugees in western Kansas is drawing to a close after weeks of testimony.

All sides have rested in the federal case against Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen on charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights. Wright also faces a charge of lying to the FBI. The judge dismissed two weapons-related charges against Stein.

U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren plans a hearing on Monday to hash out the final jury instructions. Closing arguments are scheduled for Tuesday. The jury trial began March 20.

The three men were indicted in October 2016 on charges they planned set off bombs the day after the Presidential election.

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Crime

Somalia’s first forensic lab targets rape impunity

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AFP — Garowe – The new freezers at Somalia’s only forensic laboratory can store thousands of DNA samples, although for now there are just five.

The big hope is that they could be the start of a revolution in how the troubled Horn of Africa country tackles its widespread sexual violence – provided some daunting hurdles are overcome.

The first sample arrived at the start of the year taken on a cotton swab from the underwear of a woman, a rape victim from the village of Galdogob.

It was wrapped in paper and driven 250km to the Puntland Forensic Centre in Garowe, capital of semi-autonomous Puntland, slipped into a protective glass tube and placed in one of the three ultra-low temperature fridges.

If DNA ID can be teased from the sample, this would be a crucial step in convicting the woman’s rapist.

No longer would it be a case of he-said-she-said, in which the survivor is less often believed than the accused. Two decades of conflict and turmoil have made Somalia a place where lawlessness and sexual violence are rampant.

“Now, people who have been raped hide because they don’t have evidence,” said Abdifatah Abdikadir Ahmed, who heads the Garowe police investigations department.

But with the lab, he said, “it’s a scientific investigation. There are biological acts you can zero in on.”

Challenges

Not yet, however.

Abdirashid Mohamed Shire, who runs the lab, has a team of four technicians ready but is awaiting the arrival of the final pieces of equipment.

Their work to provide the evidence that might convict or exonerate is yet to begin.

And the pressure is on. The freezers mean the DNA samples can be safely stored for years but Somali law allows a rape suspect to be held for a maximum of 60 days. Shire needs the analysis and identification machines urgently so that, as he put it, “justice will be timely served”.

The laboratory, partly funded by Sweden, was launched last year after the Puntland state government enacted a Sexual Offences Act in 2016, which criminalised sexual offences and imposed tough penalties.

But technology alone will not solve Somalia’s many judicial weaknesses.

The DNA sample from Galdogob, for example, was stored in unclear and unrefrigerated conditions for five days before being sent to the lab, meaning a defence counsel could potentially argue the DNA evidence had been tampered with.

Human rights lawyers worry the new lab might backfire for this reason.

“A lot of thought needs to be given to how the chain of custody can be preserved in these kinds of cases,” said Antonia Mulvey of Legal Action Worldwide, a Kenya-based non-profit organisation.

More fundamental still is the failure of Somalia’s police to take sexual assault cases – and their jobs – seriously.

Corruption is rife, with a legal advisor to Puntland’s justice ministry saying officers “meddle” in cases, undermining them for personal gain.

“My concern is that the corrupted system could not make a sure success of the lab,” the advisor said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “Investing in the lab is good, but we need to think about the preconditions.”

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) which helped pay for the lab is trying to address this by running training programmes for dozens of the Garowe police on sample collection, gender violence investigations and documentation.

But, the legal advisor cautioned that donors can only do so much.

“The issue is more complicated than training police. It relates to the political commitment of the government. UNFPA can train police but who will pay those you train? Are they given power to do the work?”

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