(NEW YORK) — Two of the most high-profile cases of police using deadly force in Minnesota history happened roughly 5 miles and four years apart. Each death was captured on video and in front of witnesses, and both prompted protesters to chant the names of the deceased Black men nationwide.
While former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted and jailed on Tuesday for murdering George Floyd, former St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter in the 2016 roadside shooting of Philando Castile.
Minneapolis attorney Robert Bennett, who represented Castile’s mother in a $3 million wrongful death settlement, told ABC News that the two cases are also similar in the way defense attorneys used toxicology reports in an attempt to undermine the prosecution and argue Floyd and Castile were to blame for their own deaths.
But Bennett said the jury is still out on whether the Chauvin guilty verdict on charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter will have implications on other prosecutions of police officers in use-of-force homicide cases.
“It shows that the times are changing a bit,” Bennett said. “Although it’s a step, how big the step is will be for others to determine.”
Comparing the video evidence
Bennett said there were numerous differences between the Floyd and Castile cases, the biggest being that Castile was heard on police dash-cam video telling Yanez he had a concealed gun just seconds before he was shot dead in the driver’s seat of his Oldsmobile after being pulled over for a busted brake light.
“That almost immediately puts Philando’s in a different category,” Bennett said.
Floyd was unarmed when police removed him from a car and handcuffed him after getting a complaint he allegedly used a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Floyd, who refused to get into the back of a police car, was placed prone on the pavement by three officers, including Chauvin, who pressed his knee into the back of Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes as the victim cried out he could not breathe, begged for his life, went unconscious and died.
Bennett said another major contrast was that video from multiple police body cameras, surveillance cameras and bystander cellphone footage offered jurors an up-close and almost 360-degree view of Floyd’s death and his interactions with officers leading up to his fatal takedown.
Yanez was captured from a distance by a police car dash cam firing into Castile’s car, but the footage failed to capture what happened in the vehicle that prompted the officer to resort to deadly force, Bennett said. In the dash-cam video, Yanez is heard yelling, “Don’t pull it out,” before shooting Castile five times.
A juror on the Yanez case told Minnesota Public Radio, “It just came down to us not being able to see what was going on in the car.”
In the immediate aftermath of the gunfire, Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the car with her 4-year-old daughter, posted a Facebook Live video of him bleeding to death and her saying, “He was licensed to carry,” and that he was reaching for his wallet. Speaking to Yanez, who was still pointing his gun at Castile, Reynolds said, “You told him to get his ID.”
“You didn’t get to look at Yanez’s face very much,” Bennett said of the dash-cam video. “He didn’t have the nonchalant, ‘I don’t care if I kill you’ look that Chauvin displayed.”
He said another salient difference was the witness.
“You had Diamond Reynolds who was a witness,” Bennett said, “versus this bouquet of citizen witnesses [in the Chauvin trial] who were of all different genders, different ages, different races, who all came to the same startling conclusion and had the guts to testify on the stand and to take video and remember. All of whom were left marked by what they saw. I think the citizen witnesses convicted him.”
During Yanez’s trial, the defense attorney, Earl Gray, sought to discredit Reynolds’ testimony by getting her to admit on the witness stand that she and Castile, who worked as a nutrition services assistant for an elementary school, smoked marijuana daily.
Like the Cauvin case, where defense attorney Eric Nelson argued drugs found in Floyd’s system, specifically fentanyl and methamphetamine, influenced his behavior and contributed to his death, Gray used marijuana found in Castile’s system to argue his impairment was to blame for his death, Bennett said.
Bennett said another variable was that Yanez testified in his trial while Chauvin invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
“I thought I was going to die,” Yanez testified. “I had no other choice. I was forced to engage Mr. Castile. He was not complying with my directions.”
Yanez also broke down in tears on the witness stand, saying his “baby girl” flashed through his mind during the encounter and that it wasn’t his intention to shoot Castile.
Bennett also noted the backgrounds of the Yanez jury, which was comprised of 10 white people and two Black people, most of them, with the exception of a nurse and a wellness coach, were blue-collar workers with little college education. Whereas the Chauvin trial jury — comprised of six people of color and six white members — were mostly college-educated, including a tax auditor, a chemist, a banker, an information technology security manager and a woman with a degree in child psychology.
Bennett said the Chauvin jury reminded him of the panel assembled for the 2019 trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor. Noor was convicted of third-degree murder and manslaughter for the 2017 death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, was shot to death after she called 911 to report a possible assault in progress behind her home.
Bennett represented Ruszczyk Damond’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit that resulted in a $20 million settlement from the city of Minneapolis, which was the largest payout for a police misconduct case until the city paid Floyd’s loved ones $27 million in March.
“The jury in the Mohamed Noor conviction is very much like the Chauvin jury. It was diverse, it was intelligent, it was really very similar. And they took about the same amount of time to come to their verdict,” Bennett said.
The Chauvin jury reached its unanimous verdict on Tuesday after just under 10 hours of deliberation.
Another significant difference between Chauvin’s trial and that of Yanez was the gavel-to-gavel livestream of the proceedings that Cahill ordered due to COVID-19 precautions limiting the number of people allowed in the courtroom.
“The lawyers, by and large, behaved themselves,” Bennett said. “If you’re on camera, you can’t say the same stuff that you say when you’re not on camera it seems to me.”
Asked if future prosecutions of police will require the mountain of evidence prosecutors presented in the Chauvin trial to garner a conviction, Bennett said criminal trials, particularly police misconduct trials, are “very idiosyncratic.”
“I’ve been doing police-misconduct cases since 1980, and it always took a lot of evidence to even get a verdict in you favor in a plaintiff’s case with a preponderance of the evidence,” Bennett said. “So, it’s certainly a high burden. I know that they got it right in this case. Will they get it right in every other case? I don’t know.”
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