(CNN)St. Anthony, Minnesota, police Officer Jeronimo Yanez appeared in court last week to face charges in the killing of African-American motorist Philando Castile during a traffic stop in July. Within one minute of the traffic stop, the officer reportedly shot Castile seven times, while the man’s fiance, Diamond Reynolds, looked on in the passenger seat and her 4-year-old daughter did likewise from a child seat in the rear.
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Following the shooting, Reynolds immediately began live-streaming on Facebook, which sent the events viral across social media, where millions observed her surprisingly calm, respectful and compliant demeanor in stark contrast with that of Yanez, who appeared harried, frazzled and out of control.
In the Minnesota case, Choi, the county attorney, is comfortable and confident with making the legal argument in a court of law with a charge of manslaughter that Yanez used his firearm in a cavalier and unnecessary way. Unlike a murder charge, where Choi would have to convince a judge or jury that Yanez acted intentionally, with premeditation and deliberation in taking Castile’s life, manslaughter holds no such requirement. Instead, he need only show that Yanez acted unreasonably and in an extremely careless and unjustified way. On the issue of the two counts of intentionally discharging his firearm, all a prosecutor would have to show is that Yanez endangered the life of Reynolds and her daughter when he unreasonably shot into the car. Therefore, Choi’s ability to meet his burden of proof is far more favorable than if he charged Yanez with murder.
In court, Choi need only hammer home that Yanez’s actions were dangerous, careless and unreasonable. That should not be hard, as Yanez’s explanation for the traffic stop — a broken taillight –does not appear to be accurate. And even accepting that as a legitimate basis for the stop, the defense will have to explain how a broken taillight justified Castile’s death.
The other reason proffered by Yanez as a basis for the car stop was that Castile matched the description of a robbery suspect from four days earlier. This, the defense will argue, is relevant because it explains why Yanez was in a heightened state of readiness and alert, and the reason why he felt the need to act so quickly and decisively. The legal problem remains, however, that to use deadly force, there must be an imminent threat that could produce death or severe bodily injury, and the response to that threat must be proportionate.
Castile immediately pulled over curbside upon being signaled to do so, handed his insurance card to Yanez upon request and even alerted Yanez that he had a firearm — which he had a valid permit to carry. There is no indication he was belligerent, noncompliant or threatening. There is also no evidence that Castile made any sudden movements.
In fact, Yanez’s partner, Joseph Kauser, who approached Castile’s car from the passenger side, has said he was absolutely surprised when Yanez began shooting and noted that he did so without any indication he ever saw a weapon.
Under these circumstances then, it is a heavy lift for the defense to argue credibly that the shooting was justified. Not only did Kauser fail to see the necessity of using deadly force, he expressed utter surprise that Yanez felt compelled to do so. Regardless of other examples of violence committed by or against police, this speaks volumes as to Yanez’s actions being unreasonable, unnecessary and contrary to well-established principles of law. The law demands and indeed requires that Yanez have his day in court. When that day comes, however, he will have an awful lot of explaining to do.
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