Grim Echoes for Families: An Officer Shoots and a Jury Acquits
ST. PAUL — When the verdict came down on Friday — another police officer found not guilty in the killing of another black man — a father 700 miles away, in Oklahoma, felt as if he were watching a sickening replay of his own son’s fate. Other families of those killed in previous police shootings, who happened to be gathered in Detroit for a conference this week, felt reverberations of their own pain.
And on a street corner here outside the courthouse where a jury acquitted a Minnesota officer in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile last summer, Mr. Castile’s mother, Valerie, vented a bitter frustration shared by many activists. “A murderer gets away,” said Ms. Castile, visibly anguished. “The system in this country continues to fail black people.”
After all of the public scrutiny, nationwide protests and grisly videos of police shootings over the past several years, few officers are criminally charged, and when the rare case is prosecuted, hopes rise that justice will be served. More often than not, officers are not convicted, raising a question: Do divisions widen between the police and their communities if people view the justice system as having failed than if there had been no prosecution, no deeper look, at all?
About 900 to 1,000 people are fatally shot by police officers in the United States every year, said Philip M. Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University who tracks police shootings. Since 2005, when Mr. Stinson began his tally, just 29 nonfederal law enforcement officers have been convicted in on-duty shootings. Fourteen pleaded guilty, and 15 were convicted by juries. In that time, more officers — 33 — have been arrested or charged with murder or manslaughter but not convicted.
In many of these cases, questions of guilt do not hinge on who fired the fatal shot, but on what officers were thinking when they pulled the trigger.
“As soon as the officer gets on the stand and subjectively says, ‘I was fearing for my life,’ many juries are not going to convict at that point,” Mr. Stinson said. “We’ve seen it over and over again.”
Such was the case in Cincinnati, where prosecutors are retrying a former university police officer for murder after a jury failed to reach a verdict on whether to hold him responsible in the shooting death of Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black driver. And in Baltimore, the prosecution of six officers in the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in police custody, ended last year without a single conviction after three officers were acquitted and the state’s attorney dropped all remaining charges against the other three.
And last month in Oklahoma, a jury that included at least four black jurors deliberated for nine hours before acquitting a white police officer, Betty Jo Shelby, in the shooting of Terence Crutcher. He was standing in the street outside his sport-utility vehicle, was unarmed and had his hands in the air for much of the fatal confrontation.
When Mr. Crutcher’s father, the Rev. Joey Crutcher, 69, heard about Friday’s verdict, he said, his thoughts turned to his son and parallels between the case in Minnesota and his son’s. “We’ve gone through this time and time again in different cities,” he said. “I’m beginning to think that police have free rein and they can just do whatever they want and they are going to get off.”
Mr. Crutcher said the legal process could take a toll on family members who attend court hoping for justice, but must watch videos of their loved one dying again and again. “I relived that night during the course of hearings and during the trial,” he said. “They played over and over again that video where my son was walking with his hands up, and I knew what my son was doing. He was remembering what I told him to do. If you’re stopped by the police, raise your hands and put them on the car.”
Advocates for law enforcement officers said the acquittals were signs of weak cases filed by prosecutors in response to public outcries. Earl Gray, a lawyer for Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot Mr. Castile, said the trial against his client had gone forward largely because of political pressure and a flood of attention over a video that Mr. Castile’s girlfriend had streamed live on Facebook in the moments after the shooting. “A lot of publicity was generated” from the video, Mr. Gray said, “which of course caused Ramsey County to charge Officer Yanez.”
But for activists and the 2,000 protesters who gathered in St. Paul on Friday night, the not-guilty verdict was a painful injustice doled out by a legal system tilted against black people and other minorities.
Some here took solace that the case had been brought in the first place, especially given earlier cases, like the fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis in 2015, in which prosecutors decided not to press charges. Others called the trial a show, nothing more. “What else could we have expected?” asked Anthony Newby, a community activist in Minneapolis who said he had cried behind his closed office door after hearing the verdict. “There’s that familiar rage that boils up all the time.”
Mr. Castile’s mother said after the verdict that she had believed her son’s death would be the case to upend the pattern of “not guilties” and deadlocked juries.
The Facebook live video of Mr. Castile’s last, bloody moments after being shot had set off two weeks of protests here over how the police use force against black and brown men, and touched off a chorus of demands to prosecute Officer Yanez. When he was charged with manslaughter, legal observers said it appeared to be the first time a Minnesota police officer had been indicted in an on-duty shooting death of a civilian. “This time we didn’t have a man fleeing from the scene,” said Glenda Hatchett, a lawyer for the Castile family. “We didn’t have a man fighting the police. We had a man who was fully compliant, as his mother taught him.”
“I don’t know what more could have been done,” she added.
But the jury’s verdict on the fifth day of deliberations after a three-week trial showed how differently the same shooting could appear to protesters gathered outside the State Capitol than to 12 people inside a jury room. Prosecutors and Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, said Mr. Castile had been shot as he reached for his identification. But defense lawyers said Officer Yanez believed that Mr. Castile was reaching for his gun. In a dashboard camera recording before the shooting, Mr. Castile — who was licensed to carry a gun — can be heard calmly informing Officer Yanez about the weapon.
Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said many officers were paying attention to jury decisions in police trials like Officer Yanez’s. “This isn’t cause for celebration,” he said. “A man’s dead. An officer’s career is over. And a split-second decision turned into tragedy. But again, I think what’s missed in the conversation is that sometimes cops do get it wrong. But there’s a difference between getting it wrong and acting criminally.”
John J. Choi, the elected prosecutor of Ramsey County, defended his decision to bring charges and said he recognized that the verdict would disappoint many who, though skeptical, had decided to give the justice system a chance this time. “There was ample evidence. If the jury wanted to, if they chose to choose those facts, they would have got a conviction,” Mr. Choi said. “I’m sorry that it didn’t work out as the Castile family would have liked. But the process, we can’t control it.”
Mitch Smith reported from St. Paul, Yamiche Alcindor from Washington, and Jack Healy from Denver. Christina Capecchi contributed reporting from St. Paul, and Shaila Dewan from New York.