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Yanez trial begins at a time when charges against officers are rare

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A banner lists people killed in Minnesota.
Denisha Young, 19, right, of Eagen, held one end of a banner listing the names of people killed by police in Minnesota since 1984. Protesters gathered for a Justice for Philando Castile rally outside the St. Anthony Police Department headquarters on July 10, four days after Castile was killed by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez.
Angela Jimenez for MPR News 2016

It's rare for a police officer to face charges after killing someone while on duty. But in Minnesota this week, St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez  goes on trial for shooting and killing Philando Castile during a traffic stop last summer. 

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Yanez has been charged with second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. Jury selection in his trial begins Tuesday.   

Castile's death was one in a string of recent high-profile incidents in which police killed African-American men or boys while on duty. They drew protests and international media attention. After Castile's death, protesters demanded that charges be filed against Yanez. But across the country, only a small fraction of police officers who kill someone while on duty are ever convicted. 

Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice as Bowling Green State University, has been tracking the number of officers who have been charged with murder or manslaughter from on-duty shootings. Since 2005, just 80 officers have faced manslaughter or murder charges out of thousands of fatal shootings. 

But even when charges are filed against an officer, the rate of conviction is low, according to Stinson's research. Just 29 of those 80 officers either pleaded guilty or were convicted by a jury, while 31 of the cases ended without a conviction. The rest of the cases are still pending. 

Thousands of cases, few charges

Philando Castile's death came the day after Alton Sterling, 37, was shot at close range in Baton Rouge, La., while two officers pinned him to the pavement. Federal prosecutors announced earlier this month that they won't file federal charges against the officers involved in Sterling's death. State authorities have launched their own investigation, but have not yet said whether they've decided to charge the officers. 

The Washington Post, which has tracked fatal police shootings since 2015, estimates that charges are filed against officers in less than 1 percent of fatal shootings. 

In July 2014, Eric Garner, 43, died after officers in Staten Island, N.Y., put him in a chokehold while arresting him because they suspected he was selling loose cigarettes. A month later,  Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo. That fall,  Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy holding a pellet gun, was shot in Cleveland. Grand juries declined to indict officers in all three cases. 

Convening a grand jury to consider charges is a secretive process that's been sharply criticized by activists. After another African-American man, Jamar Clark, 24, was shot to death during a tussle with police officers in Minneapolis in 2015, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman decided not to send the case to a grand jury, saying that he would make the final call on whether to press charges against the officers. Freeman later  decided not to file charges in the case

When Castile was killed just a few months later in Falcon Heights, Minn., Ramsey County Attorney John Choi chose not to convene a grand jury. Instead, he filed charges against officer Jeronimo Yanez of second-degree manslaughter, which he said at the time was the charge he believed his office could prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

More cases this month

In Tulsa, Okla., this month, a jury acquitted police officer Betty Jo Shelby of manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Terence Crutcher, 40, last September. 

Crutcher had left his vehicle in the middle of a Tulsa street, with its doors open and its engine running. Crutcher was standing by the side of the road, and started walking back toward his SUV. Shelby's defense attorneys successfully argued that she shot him because she feared for her life when Crutcher reached his SUV and leaned toward the driver's side window. She said she thought he was reaching for a gun, although an investigation later found that Crutcher didn't have a firearm in the car.

In Minnesota, state law justifies deadly force by law enforcement it is used "to protect the peace officer or another from apparent death or great bodily harm." While state laws give officers wide discretion in the use of deadly force, some jurors can also be reluctant to convict an officer.

A former University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing, is now back on trial for the shooting death of unarmed driver Samuel DuBose during a 2015 traffic stop. Tensing's first trial resulted in a mistrial after jurors were unable to unanimously decide on a verdict. A retrial in the case started last week. 

In another high-profile case, former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty earlier this month to federal civil rights charges in the 2015 shooting death of Walter Scott.  Video of that shooting showed Slager shooting Scott in the back as he ran away. 

Slager was charged with murder on the state level, but the case ended with a hung jury and mistrial  in December, although jurors reported that they were only one vote away from convicting Slager. The state of South Carolina agreed to drop the murder charge against Slager in exchange for a guilty plea on the federal charge. 

Slager has not yet been sentenced, but faces a possible sentence of life in prison. The Associated Press has reported that prosecutors have proposed a sentence consistent with federal guidelines for a second-degree murder conviction — more than 20 years in prison. 

According to Stinson's research, the  officers who were convicted and served time in prison were given an average sentence of 48 months. But, most often, when officers were convicted for killing someone while on duty, they served no prison time.

Yanez is facing a maximum penalty of 10 years for the manslaughter charge and a maximum sentence of five years each for the firearm charges. Jury selection in the trial is set to begin on Tuesday. 

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