ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – The manslaughter trial for the Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop last summer began Tuesday with jury selection and a motion by the defense to exclude statements about Castile’s permit to carry a firearm.
The immediate aftermath of the July 2016 shooting was live-streamed on Facebook by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was a passenger in the car along with her 4-year-old daughter.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi charged St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez, 29, with one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm in November.
Yanez pleaded not guilty to both charges in February.
Seats designated to media and the public were packed full Tuesday morning for the beginning of the jury trial. Sheriff’s deputies had to turn away a handful of reporters.
Yanez’s family members were present. Castile’s family decided not to attend jury selection but will attend the trial once the jury is seated.
Ramsey County District Judge William H. Leary is presiding over the trial and started proceedings promptly on Tuesday morning.
While the jury panel received orientation, Leary discussed motions filed by Yanez’s counsel, including whether to exclude statements made by Reynolds during the shooting or allow Yanez’s attorneys to investigate who sold Reynolds marijuana hours before the incident.
One motion dealt with whether to allow statements by Reynolds about Castile having a valid permit to carry a gun during the incident. The statements were recorded live on social media and also on police squad car videos.
Castile, who was licensed to carry, was shot after informing officers that he was carrying pistol.
One of Yanez’s attorneys, Earl Gray, argued that Yanez did not know Castile had a carry permit at the time of the shooting. Gray also said that Castile’s permit was invalid anyway since he falsely stated on a 2015 permit application that he was not a marijuana user.
Leary said taking the “narrowest approach” is to instruct the jury not to consider the permit to carry. The judge is giving the state until Wednesday morning to decide whether to agree to take this approach.
In a May 5 interview with prosecutors, Reynolds said that she purchased marijuana and that Castile did not smoke any of it before the shooting.
Gray said having the “right to investigate” and adding this statement to the record is relevant because it will allow the defense to find out how much marijuana was consumed prior to the shooting.
If Yanez’s attorneys are able to determine how much was consumed and it doesn’t line up with Reynolds’ previous statements, Earl says Reynolds would be “impeachable.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Paulsen said it’s a “red herring” and “irrelevant.” Paulsen said, “Six grams was found in the car but none of it was smoked.”
Yanez, 29, entered the courtroom after a brief recess following discussion of the motions.
He was dressed in a well-tailored gray suit with a purple tie. After taking his seat between his attorneys, Yanez looked around the courtroom as if looking to find familiar faces.
There were 50 prospective jurors on Tuesday and a handful of them were of people of color, including Asian, black and Latino individuals.
Leary began jury selection and summarized the allegations against Yanez. The judge also reiterated two rules of law for jury selection – that a complaint is not evidence and Yanez is innocent until the state proves his guilt.
Leary summoned prospective jurors to fill out a questionnaire and return Wednesday morning for additional questioning.
Once Leary excused the jury selection pool, he asked the state if it had made a decision on whether to agree to leave out Reynolds’ statements about Castile’s carry permit.
Paulsen said prosecutors had not made a decision yet but would have one Wednesday morning.
Yanez’s defense team also asked Leary to change the method of jury selection by increasing the number of strikes to preserve unbiased jurors. Attorney Paul Engh argued that increasing the number of strikes to 15 for the defense and nine for the prosecution is “definitely needed” because of the publicity the case has received.
But Paulsen argued that keeping it to five strikes for the defense and three for the prosecution “is the right number.”
Outside the courtroom, John Thompson, Castile’s friend and co-worker at St. Paul Public Schools, said, “For me, I’m just happy that this day has come and [Yanez] could face these charges.”
Thompson says he will be relieved when it’s over.
“At the end of the day, he murdered a cafeteria worker,” Thompson said of Yanez.
Jury selection is expected to last multiple days.