ST. PAUL (CN) — The jury that will determine the fate of the Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile heard opening statements Monday, testimony from two witnesses and watched video of the fatal shooting.
Castile’s killing received worldwide attention because his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the car with her 4-year-old daughter when St. Anthony police Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot Castile five times, live-streamed the immediate aftermath on Facebook. Yanez has been charged with manslaughter.
Reynolds said Yanez shot Castile after he told the officer he was licensed to carry a weapon and had one in his pocket. She said Yanez killed him as he was reaching for his ID. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office called it a homicide. He was declared dead about 20 minutes after Yanez shot him, on July 6, 2016. St. Anthony is a suburb of St. Paul.
Day one of the trial Monday surprised court watchers because of the rapidity of the jury selection and the brisk progress during three and one-half hours after the trial began at 1:45 p.m.
The 15 jurors, which includes three alternates, include nine men and six women; all are white except for one man and one woman.
The defense attempted to strike juror 17 from the pool. Juror 17 is from Ethiopia and was the only other nonwhite person in the pool. Yanez’s attorneys said juror 17 did not know enough about the criminal justice system, that the case is “complicated,” that “she’s just going to be lost” and that “she has no idea of the criminal justice system.”
Ramsey County Judge William Leary III, however, said he had conducted the initial questioning and juror 17 seemed to be a fairly competent student when asked about the criminal justice system.
Referring to juror 18, who is in her 40s and white, Leary said she did not display any more sophistication yet the defense failed to question her about the criminal justice system.
With the jury seated, Leary gave them preliminary instructions and reviewed the charges against Yanez.
The defense reviewed eight exhibits they will present at trial, which include the original and replicas of items found at the crime scene. They include a pair of shorts worn by Castile, a holster found in his pocket, Castile’s wallet, which contained his driver’s license and permit to carry a gun, and his Diamondback gun.
Prosecutor Richard Dusterhoft opened by telling the jury that Yanez pulled Castile over because he looked like a suspect who had robbed a gas station a few days ago: that he “just looked like one of the robbers.”
Dusterhoft then showed jurors a 90-second long video of the shooting, taken from the squad car camera, the audio from a body mike.
In it, Castile says: “Sir, I do have a firearm on me.”
Yanez says immediately: “OK, don’t reach for it. Don’t pull it out.”
Castile replied: “I’m not pulling it out.”
Within seconds, Yanez shoots into the vehicle seven times, hitting Castile five times and barely missing Reynolds and her daughter, Dae-Anna.
Yanez shouts: “Shots fired! Fuck!” And: “I told him to keep his hand out!”
Yanez can be heard heavily panting.
When the video ended, Dusterhoft told jurors that Castile was shot twice in the heart and that his final words were: “I wasn’t reaching.”
When the ambulance arrived, Castile was still fastened by his seat belt. He was removed for CPR. During this time, Dusterhoft said, Yanez was recorded telling another officer , “I didn’t know where the gun was.”
Dusterhoft said Castile had a valid gun license but it is unclear which pocket his wallet was in, as his clothes were torn before he was taken to the Hennepin County Medical Center.
Dusterhoft said it was Yanez’s own “negligence” that led to the fatal shooting and that Yanez never told Castile to “freeze.”
Though tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana, was in Castile’s system, it does not change the fact that he had a valid permit to carry with him, Dusterhoft said.
In his opening statement, Yanez’s attorney Paul Engh told the jury that Castile ignored Yanez’s commands and the officer reacted “as he was trained to do.”
Engh introduced Yanez to the jury by recapitulating his life story and family history. He described Yanez as a studious young man who decided in the 11th grade that he wanted to be a police officer. He was the first in his family to attend college, Minnesota State University, Mankato, from which he graduated in 2010. His father is from Mexico and his mother from Southern Texas. His parents moved to Minnesota, where they raised Yanez and his two older brothers. During Yanez’s childhood the family lived on welfare and was subjected to poverty and prejudice, Engh said.
Yanez joined the St. Anthony Police Department on Nov. 19, 2011, which Engh called the happiest time in his life, as he had married his wife the same year.
On the night of the shooting, Engh said, Yanez followed Castile because he matched the description of the robbery suspect, a black man with dreadlocks and glasses. He said a picture of the suspect had been posted in the police station.
“As he was trained, [Yanez] fired close and fired in a way that others would not be harmed,” Engh said.
Defense attorneys plan to call three experts, including a toxicologist, a police officer and an academic.
The first witness to testify Monday was Anna Garnaas-Halvorson, an elementary schoolteacher at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, where Castile worked in the cafeteria. She said Castile’s demeanor was “consistently calm” and the children and staff referred to him as “Mr. Phil.”
She said Castile never smelled of marijuana or acted in an erratic manner.
Dusterhoft attempted to question Garnaas-Halvorson on more personal subjects such as her reaction to Castile’s death, how the schoolchildren viewed Castile and where she was when she heard about his death. But defense attorneys objected and Leary sustained.
Diamond Reynolds, wearing a black and white dress, remained composed during most of her testimony, until she was shown a photo of Castile and her daughter Anna on her fourth birthday.
Reynolds, 27, of West St. Paul, moved to Minnesota from Chicago with her mother when she was a child. She said her mother moved the family to Minnesota to provide a better life for her and her sister.
Jurors learned that Reynolds has lived in and out of women shelters since 2011 and was in a romantic relationship with Castile when he died. They shared a home she found through a women’s shelter.
Reynolds called their neighborhood Zone 6 in east St. Paul. She said it was a high-crime area, riddled with prostitution and drugs. Before she and Castile moved there, there had been two killings near the home, she said.
She said Castile “always had” his gun, “for protection for himself and his family.”
Reynolds described Castile as loving and caring, said he “never screamed,” and “accepted (her) with all her flaws.”
She recalled times when they attended annual barbecues hosted by the police.
She called Castile a “friend, role model and father figure” to Dae-Anna and said he “would read books to her at night.”
Every morning, Reynolds said, Castile would take the gun out of its safety box and place it in a holster.
On the day of the shooting, Reynolds said, she and her sister had smoked marijuana before picking up her daughter at day care. After Castile picked them all up at the day care at about 6:20 p.m., the four of them went to a grocery store where Reynolds’ sister bought groceries for the entire family.
Prosecutor Clayton Robinson then showed the grocery receipt, time-stamped at 8:20 p.m., as an exhibit.
Judge Leary then called it a day. Reynolds was to resume testifying Tuesday morning.