Jeronimo Yanez and I attended the same university at the same time. I don’t recall ever meeting him, but we ran with a similar group of friends. They tell me that Yanez was a good guy—nice, friendly, hardly the monster that many have made him out to be following his deadly encounter with Philando Castile last July.
Nothing I’ve seen over the past year has done anything to make me think otherwise. Even after watching that horrifying dashcam video in which Yanez pumps seven fatal rounds into the front seat of Castile’s car, I still find him to be a sympathetic figure. The video hardly portrays a vicious executioner. The guy’s nervous, he panics, and in the process, he makes the gravest mistake of his life. It’s obvious that he feels terrible, both then and now, and I feel sorry for him. But that sympathy isn’t enough to prevent me from adding my voice to the overwhelming chorus who feel that, in the case of State of Minnesota v. Jeronimo Yanez, justice was not served.
I think it’s worth highlighting that Yanez was not being charged with murder. He was being charged with manslaughter—second degree manslaughter to be exact. This reflects the notion that we as a society lend police officers a certain amount of leeway not provided to ordinary citizens when it comes to the use of lethal force. We recognize that police officers perform a difficult and dangerous job in which snap decisions are often necessary, and can make the difference between whether or not an officer lives or dies.
However, when I watch that dashcam video, the definition of second degree manslaughter is exactly what I see. Words like “negligence,” “unreasonable,” and “endangerment,” seem to perfectly describe Yanez’s actions. He may not have murdered Castile in cold blood, but based on what I’m reading, he still appears criminally culpable for Castile’s death.
But the video admittedly does not provide the whole story. Despite all the disturbing images that we can see through the lenses of the squad car and Diamond Reynold’s cell phone, we still can’t see exactly what’s happening inside of the car prior to the shooting. Perhaps this is the primary reason that the jury chose not to convict. In our justice system, the burden of proof lies on the prosecution, not the defense. Even though it seems unlikely, there is no hard proof that Castile was not reaching for his gun rather than his license. There is no hard proof that Officer Yanez did not fear for his life (and if you’ve seen the video, it seems quite likely that he did). In the United States, the defendant is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, and in spite of all the incriminating evidence that the prosecution presented, the jurors still obviously possessed the proverbial reasonable doubt. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they believed Yanez to be “innocent,” it just means they didn’t feel that they had enough to send him to prison.
This case is unique, and should be treated as such. What we think about the case should be influenced by the details of this case and this case alone, not by what has or has not happened in similar cases in the recent past. That said, this case is also so emblematic of the systemic issues inherent in the way that we do criminal justice in this country, that it’s easy to see why people are so quick to make that jump. From the fact that a black man was pulled over for his resemblance of a suspect in another crime (a.k.a. “driving while black”), to the careful compliance exhibited by the black occupants of the car as they talked to the police (in Reynolds case, even AFTER her boyfriend was shot), to the ultimate acquittal of the officer (are black people innocent until proven guilty?), this case just seems to be such an example of the experience of black people when they come into contact with the criminal justice system and those who administer it. As one write-up put it, “the system worked as it was designed, it was not built to protect black lives.” I’m not sure if I agree with everything that that statement implies, but I understand why a black person might.
Even if Yanez had been convicted, that verdict would have given me no pleasure. This is a disgusting situation in which even “justice” is no real remedy. As one juror put it, “nobody was ok with it”—nobody was ok with the pain and suffering that will plague each member of the Castile family for the rest of their lives, nor the guilt and regret that Yanez will carry with him for the rest of his. Yet that juror still chose not to convict. I was not in that court room. Maybe, legally speaking, acquittal was the right call. But if this case is not an example of injustice perpetrated by a police officer against a black man, then what in the hell is?