ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez took the witness stand Friday in his manslaughter trial over the traffic-stop killing of Philando Castile, telling jurors he saw Castile reach for a gun and thought he was going to die.
Castile’s July 2016 killing received worldwide attention because his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the car with her 4-year-old daughter when Yanez shot Castile five times, live-streamed the immediate aftermath on Facebook.
Yanez, 29, has been charged with one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm.
On Friday – three days after Reynolds took the stand – Yanez confronted jurors, his family and Castile’s family in a packed courtroom and described the thoughts and emotions he experienced after pulling Castile over for a broken taillight, learning that a firearm was in the car and allegedly seeing Castile reach for the gun.
“I was scared to death. I thought I was going to die. My family popped into my head. My wife. My baby girl. Officer Kauser. I was concerned about the front seat passenger. I was concern about the child in the back,” he said.
Yanez’s voice began to cracking and he started crying.
“I had no other choice. I was forced to engage Mr. Castile.”
He then sobbed.
“I did not want to shoot Mr. Castile at all. Those were not my intentions.”
During cross-examinations, prosecutor Richard Dusterhoft asked Yanez if he believed he followed all policies of the St. Anthony Police Department.
“I did,” Yanez replied.
Dusterhoft asked Yanez to go back prior to the shooting from his prospective.
Yanez said he followed Castile for two miles before he pulled Castile over in a fully marked squad car. He did not contact dispatch.
Yanez said when he approached Castile’s vehicle he saw a child and an adult female. He also saw Castile in a seatbelt.
When Yanez was obtaining proof of insurance from Castile, he said he could see inside the car and kept an eye on Castile’s hands.
When Castile said, “Sir, I have to tell you I have a firearm,” Yanez was looking at Castile’s insurance card.
At this point, Yanez says the dynamic changes for an officer because they are on “high alert.”
The officer said he was investigating a robbery and that Castile “should have told me he had a permit” to carry the gun.
Yanez explained to jurors that Castile did not make eye contact and was “mumbling” and “talking forward” and “wanted to do what he wanted to do.”
The officer said that he began experiencing “tunnel vision” when Castile was telling him that he was not “reaching for it.”
Yanez said that he saw Castile reach for a gun from his right thigh, just before he fired seven shots, hitting Castile five times.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension interviewed the officer after the fatal shooting.
During this interview, Dusterhoft says Yanez made several statements that are now inconsistent with his current testimony, including that he only saw Castile’s gun barrel when Castile was reaching for an “object.”
Yanez now says he did in fact see a firearm and its slide.
He said the inconsistencies in his statements to the BCA were due to his “trying to fumble my way through stress.”
Dusterhoft asked Ramsey County Judge William Leary III to allow prosecutors to play back the entire one-hour video of Yanez’s interview with the BCA or portions of the video to show jurors the inconsistencies in his statements and to show that Yanez was never under real “duress” during the BCA interview.
But after a brief recess, Leary sided with Yanez’s attorneys and sustained their objections to the request.
Elliot Erdman, a fellow St. Anthony police officer and close friend of Yanez, also took the witness stand Friday.
Erdman drove Yanez home in Erdman’s personal vehicle the night of the shooting.
Erdman said Yanez was “hyper-vigilant” and initially did not cry but then eventually “broke down,” saying, “That poor little girl. Why did he have to reach for it?”
Defense attorney Thomas Kelly asked what Yanez meant by “it.”
“A gun,” Erdman replied.
Erdman also gave a ride to Yanez after his BCA interview.
According to Erdman, Yanez immediately told him that he mistakenly said “barrel” instead of “slide” during the BCA interview.
Dusterhoft said Erdman failed to make this statement, among others, to defense attorneys Paul Engh and Kelly in a summary memo.
The last witness to take the witness stand Friday was BCA agent Christopher Olson, who interviewed Reynolds after the shooting.
Defense attorneys then proceeded to play a squad cam video of Olson giving $40 to Reynolds after Reynolds told him that she and her daughter were hungry and did not have food.
The groceries Reynolds had bought with her sister the day of the shooting were left in Castile’s car and had been placed in evidence after the incident.
Earlier this week, Reynolds had testified that she did not receive any money from Olson.
Dusterhoft was able to confirm with Olson that Reynolds had learned only an hour prior that Castile had died when she told him she was hungry.
Yanez’s defense attorneys also called Emanuel Kapelsohn, a use force expert and president of The Peregrine Corporation, to evaluate Yanez’s “reasonableness” in using deadly force against Castile in the July 6, 2016, incident.
Peregrine Corporation is a firearms and use of force training consulting firm that Kapelsohn formed in 1980.
He holds degrees from Yale University and Harvard Law School and certification as a firearms instructor for the FBI and the National Rifle Association. He is also certified in instructing police defense tactics, handgun retention and police use of force.
Kapelsohn provided counsel with a 22-page condensed report that was a compilation of thousands of pages of case evidence, such as video and audio by police and Reynolds, investigative reports, medical reports, crime scene photos and St. Anthony Police Department training policies.
He said he also visited the crime scene during the day and evening to get a better understanding of the lighting conditions Yanez would have experienced.
In addition, Kapelsohn went to the impound lot where Castile’s white Oldsmobile is stored, and said he placed plastic sheeting in the vehicle and sat in the car.
He also purchased the same dark pair of Ralph Lauren shorts worn by Castile during the shooting. He placed the same Diamondback gun in a holster inside the shorts.
Kapelsohn said three-eighths of inch of the butt of the gun was left below the lip of the pocket.
He added that Yanez was at a disadvantage because the reaction time for him to pull a gun was five-tenths of a second compared to Castile’s reaction time of less than three-tenths of a second, based on his estimation of movements.
Ultimately, Kapelsohn said he believes the shooting was justified because Castile ignored three “lawful commands” by Yanez not to reach for the gun and that Yanez’s conduct was “consistent.”
He also said Yanez’s initial response to learning Castile had a firearm was “moderate.”
Closing statements in Yanez’s trial will begin Monday morning, followed by jury deliberations.