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Judge clears path for officer's trial in Castile shooting

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John Thompson and Danny Givens speak to the media.
John Thompson, a friend of Philando Castile, and Pastor Danny Givens talk to reporters after Wednesday's hearing inside the Ramsey County Courthouse in downtown St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 3:40 p.m. | Posted: 10:02 a.m.

Officer Jeronimo Yanez
Booking photo for St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez
Ramsey County Sheriff's Office

A Ramsey County judge on Wednesday cleared the path to trial in the case against St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez for the shooting death of Philando Castile.

Yanez, 28, faces a second-degree manslaughter charge and two felony charges for recklessly discharging his weapon on July 6, 2016, when he fatally shot Castile, 32, during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights.

Ramsey County District Judge William Leary III scheduled a Feb. 27 hearing for Yanez to make a plea in the case. One of his attorneys said Yanez plans to plead not guilty.

Yanez's attorneys asked for charges to be dismissed, arguing that Castile disobeyed the officer's order not to reach for a gun that he had in the car with him. They contend that Yanez shot Castile because he saw the gun and feared for his life. 

Philando Castile
Philando Castile in an undated photo.
Courtesy of Sam Castile

"[Yanez] had a right to carry a gun, he had a right to stop the car, he had a right to investigate," defense attorney Paul Engh said in court Wednesday. "There is no right to disobey the orders of a police officer during a traffic stop."

The judge rejected an argument from the defense that Castile had not followed the officer's orders. A "victim's unreasonable conduct is never an absolute defense to a criminal charge," he added.

Leary also rejected a second defense argument that said the prosecution's evidence isn't substantial enough to go to trial.

Because the  evidence that backs up the prosecution's version of events could be substantial enough to convince a jury, the judge said it's "fair and reasonable" to proceed to trial.

Prosecutors say that after Yanez pulled Castile over for a broken taillight, Castile calmly told the officer that he had a gun with him. Yanez told Castile not to reach for the gun, they said, and Castile told the officer he wasn't reaching for it. That's when Yanez fired his gun seven times. 

Prosecutors argued that the officer's behavior during the stop was not in line with how a "reasonable officer" would have reacted. They argued that, because key facts of the case — whether or not Yanez saw Castile's gun, whether Castile reached for his gun — are in dispute it should go to before a jury.

Defense attorneys countered Wednesday that the charges against Yanez have not been correctly applied. They say the charges rely on hindsight, rather than what Yanez knew in the moment of the shooting.

Engh said Yanez had the right to shoot if he was afraid Castile could kill or greatly harm him, a fear he said could be heard in the tone of the officer's voice in a squad camera video that was submitted as evidence and, because of that, remains under seal. 

Police at the shooting scene.
Police secure evidence in July at the shooting scene on Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights where Philando Castile was fatally shot.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News

"Under the circumstances here, he had no choice. He had to shoot," Engh argued. 

But Jeffrey Paulsen, a federal prosecutor assisting the Ramsey County Attorney's Office in the case, told the court that argument is "an entirely disputed fact."

Paulsen said  both Castile and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who, along with her 4-year-old daughter, was a passenger in the car, told Yanez that Castile was not trying to reach for his gun. Paulsen also cited testimony from Yanez's partner, Officer Joseph Kauser, who told investigators he never saw a gun or even sudden movements from Castile.  

The question at issue is not whether Yanez felt threatened, but about how a "reasonable officer" would react, Paulsen told the judge. He said Castile was trying to follow Yanez's order to produce his driver's license when he was shot. 

"Philando Castile's right at issue was the right not to be killed for no good reason," Paulsen said.   

Valerie Castile leaves the courthouse.
Valerie Castile briefly talks to reporters after Wednesday's hearing. "It's just as simple as the nose on your face," she said. "It's about right and wrong. My son was an amazing human being."
Evan Frost | MPR News

Paulsen argued that the case needs to move forward to trial because the defense and prosecution disagree on what exactly happened in the moments leading up to the shooting. They don't agree, for instance, on whether Castile reached for a gun during the traffic stop, whether Yanez saw the gun or whether Castile was impaired by marijuana. 

"Just because they say something is the truth, doesn't mean it's the truth," Paulsen said. "That's why it needs to go to trial." 

Castile's family and friends gathered in the first two rows on the left side of the courtroom in the Ramsey County courthouse Wednesday morning, while Yanez's supporters sat to the right. The downtown St. Paul courtroom was full, with about 40 people including reporters.

Dressed in a tan suit and a dark brown tie, Yanez walked in flanked by his defense team. He didn't speak during the hearing, and kept his eyes trained on the attorneys as they made their arguments. 

After the hearing ended, Allysza Castile, Philando Castile's younger sister, walked out of the courtroom in tears.

"She loved him and she misses him so, very, very, very much," her mother, Valerie Castile, said of Allysza Castile.

Valerie Castile declined to comment on the specifics of the case after the hearing, saying her family  wants to respect the court process.

"My son was an amazing human being. He had rights, civil liberties," Valerie Castile said. "We're gonna respect the officer's [civil liberties]. We can't say a whole lot because we don't want to jeopardize his rights."

Castile's friend John Thompson said he was also waiting for the court process to play out. 

"I just keep thinking about my friend, keep thinking about Philando," Thompson said. "My friend deserves justice."