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For prosecutor, charging officer in fatal shooting a complex decision

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi is interviewed about his decision to charge Officer Yanez in Philando Castile's death and the trial that followed, Thursday, Dec. 14, in St. Paul. (Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press)

ST. PAUL — After Philando Castile was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights nearly a year and a half ago, it seemed like nearly everyone wanted to weigh in on what should happen next.

Calls for the officer to be charged came swiftly. Many in the community believed St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez let his irrational fear of a black man who disclosed he was carrying a gun lead him to recklessly kill the 32-year-old while Castile's girlfriend and her 4-year-old child looked on.

Others came to the defense of Yanez and other police officers tasked with making split-second, life-and-death decisions, arguing for the wide berth they need to ensure they can protect people in a time when streets are increasingly teeming with guns.

Their opinions weren't the ones that counted, though. The decision rested with Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.

In November of last year, Choi made history when he became the first county attorney in Minnesota's modern history to bring criminal charges against a police officer involved in an on-duty fatal shooting.

Choi charged Yanez with one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm for endangering the lives of Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and Reynolds' daughter.

Reynolds live-streamed the shooting's immediate aftermath on Facebook, capturing worldwide attention when the footage when viral.

In June, a Ramsey County District Court jury acquitted Yanez on all the charges after the officer testified he saw Castile gripping a gun despite commands not to do so.

A national dialogue about police use-of-force, particularly against people of color, continues.

Twin Cities residents are awaiting Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman's decision on an officer-involved fatal shooting of an unarmed Minneapolis woman last July.

Just this Friday, Choi declined to charge officers involved in the fatal shooting of Cordale Handy, a black man, in St. Paul last March.

Choi agreed to an interview with the Pioneer Press to reflect on how and why he arrived at charges in the Castile shooting—a case he knows will define his career.

The following is that interview, conducted Thursday. It's been edited for brevity and clarity. A full video of the interview can be found on TwinCities.com.

Let's go back to July 6, 2016, shortly after then St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shot Philando Castile during that traffic stop. It happened in Falcon Heights, your jurisdiction, so the decision about whether Yanez crossed a line criminally belonged to you. When did you start to feel the weight of it all?

I remember that night I stayed at work late, just kind of thinking about what I would say to the public, and we came to the conclusion that it was important for me to say something, to tell the community, you know, I got this, I am the person that will be responsible, I will figure these issues out.

I am blessed with the ability to kind of compartmentalize my life and be pretty, you know, I sleep like a baby, even during the toughest times. But on that particular weekend, I didn't sleep so well, and I remember thinking to myself, "Is this really happening here in Ramsey County?" Because at that time, Reynolds' Facebook Live video had gone worldwide and there was just so much media attention and public attention and anger about what had happened. Because when you see Philando Castile dying right in front of our eyes, of course the reaction is just pure sadness and regret and anger about why this had to happen.

So that's when I started to recognize that this would be a case that would be defining for me from a professional standpoint, defining for our community, and something where the whole world is going to be paying attention. So you can imagine just, kind of, the thoughts and feelings that I was having. I had to put my game face on and get ready for what I needed to do, which was to be strong and to make sure I fought hard for the integrity of this process.

The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension spent about three months investigating the case, and your office got it in late September. Why does the process take so long, especially when other cases are charged in a couple of days?

Well I think the first thing to recognize with respect to a police officer-involved shooting is that the issues are really complex and it's not just a simple cut and dry investigation. Only a small percentage of these result in convictions. So you have to make sure that the investigation is thorough because I think from a prosecutor perspective, the thing you don't want to ever have happen is for you to charge a case and then have a judge dismiss it and say that you did not have probable cause or the requisite facts.

I know from the perspective of the community, it's really hard to understand why it takes so long because they are thinking, "Well, we need an answer. We need some action to happen. We want to know what your decision is." But in the course of getting it right, I think space is so critical for investigators to be able to do what they have to do.

And as your team worked through the process and reviewed the case, were you all on the same page or were there lots of back-and-forth conversations?

The conversations were really important because, and it wasn't so much anybody saying, "I don't feel like this case should be charged," it was more everybody raising all the issues that a defense attorney would raise and kind of thinking through all of the issues. So even if you kind of thought this case should be charged, we were being very thorough and critical about all of the pieces of evidence we had and making sure that we were being thorough about that question of whether or not we believed we had probable cause.

Is it fair to say that earlier on, you knew you were going to charge the case but that you needed more time to kind of poke holes and make sure you had looked it from every angle?

We didn't make a decision about prosecution until after we had gotten the case, but I think that, I can speak for myself, I started feeling that this case should be charged when I heard the audio (from the squad camera) and you hear the tone of what's happening with each of them and I am hearing Philando Castile really trying to do everything he can to maybe put the officer at ease and I am also hearing maybe confusing commands. So just for me, personally, that was when my thoughts started to change about this particular case.

We had a person (Reynolds) who was sitting right next to Philando Castile who told us what she perceived and so taking her account, though it was kind of confusing, I'll admit that, but to get at the nut of it, what she was saying was at the end of the day, he was trying to comply with the officer's commands and was doing everything that he could to be respectful.

So that was my evolution as I was kind of thinking about this case, and at the same time, for me it's about doing the right thing. I have to look at myself in the mirror, and I know that from a standpoint of that charging decision, I know forever I will be remembered as the person who if you didn't like that decision, I am the one that I guess moved the cheese. And for those that liked the decision, I guess it's a bold, courageous decision or however people might characterize it to be. But trust me, no prosecutor wants to be in that spot. I mean it's not something that I woke up and said I want to do. But I recognized that when I ran for election, this was something that I signed up to do.

Did you ever waver, especially considering you were the first in Minnesota to go there?

I felt good about it because at the end of the day, I have to just do what is right. That is what the public is asking me to do. To be fair and impartial and to think about justice and to think about everybody involved, the officer, Philando Castile and his family, Diamond Reynolds, her daughter. And it's a heavy thing, to charge a police officer with a crime in this context in the line of duty, because officer Yanez woke up that morning and his intentions were never to be in this situation. He didn't wake up saying, "I want to kill somebody today." He woke up and said, "I am going to do my job. I am going to protect the public and do it to the best of my ability."

You said when you announced your decision to bring charges in this case that "no reasonable officer knowing, seeing and hearing what officer Yanez did at the time would have used deadly force." Why do you believe Yanez shot him? Do you believe, as Gov. Mark Dayton said shortly after the shooting, that had Castile been white, he'd be alive today?

When I said that, I don't think that an officer who was trained like how a typical officer would be trained would have taken those actions; there were so many things that could have happened to avoid that.

We can't get in the mind of Yanez. But I think what the governor was trying to articulate is that we have to recognize that you and me and anybody in this world, we all come to our life or our situations with our own life experiences. We all have biases based upon how we were raised and our professional experiences inform our judgments and our decisions. Everybody in this world has it. It's actually a survival mechanism, so in that context, was there implicit bias in this case? Well, I think in every context of police interaction there is that implicit bias. I have an implicit bias as I sit here today based on my life experiences. Now if we are talking about did officer Yanez intentionally shoot Philando Castile because of his race, the answer would be no, I don't think so. Again, I don't know what's in the mind of an officer, but I think as a society, we should presume that he wouldn't do that, and we shouldn't assume that anybody in our law enforcement would ever do that.

There were a whole host of other issues. Some people might point to the traffic stop itself. Our expert said it was unreasonable for officer Yanez, as a car was driving down Larpenteur Avenue, to assume that this black man, right, Philando Castile, was the robber in that robbery.

But again, if you believe that officer Yanez shot Philando Castile because of his race, I don't think that is the case. When the governor was speaking, I think some people may have misinterpreted what he was saying. I think he was talking about this implicit bias that we all have, and in the context of how that affects communities of color, because I think if you talk to African-American men, often times they will share stories of having been pulled over multiple times or not been given the benefit of the doubt. Or that they are presumed to be aggressive and dangerous or whatever it might be, and that can be very disheartening and degrading and also just exhausting for a lot of people in our community.

So as far as why you think officer Yanez did shoot then, are you saying he just panicked?

Yeah, this case was about unreasonable panic.

You were the first county attorney in Minnesota to file charges against a police officer involved in an on-duty fatal shooting in at least the state's modern history. Is it your belief that no other police officer has crossed that criminal line before?

That's a good question but I am not the person to answer it. I think you'd need somebody who would be researching all the cases. I can only speak to the cases that I have been involved in as the Ramsey County attorney, and I am pretty familiar with all of those cases starting on Jan. 1 of 2011 to the present. And I will tell you that this case, the case involving officer Yanez and Philando Castile, was the only case that I believe criminal charges were appropriate.

In the end, the state lost this case. Why do you think that was?

I think, again, whenever you are charging a police officer in the line of duty, that is a tough mountain to climb. In fact, I think it's just a little more than 20 percent of these type of cases that actually result in a conviction, and so they are just extraordinarily hard. I think a big part of that is because you are really asking the jurors to kind of turn their world view upside down.

Because of many people's trust in the police?

Yeah, and the lens they are then going to view the information with.

So you knew going in that it this was going to be a hard case to win?

Yeah.

How much involvement did you have with your team on making the calls about how to present the case and handle the trial?

Well, it's probably the biggest case that has happened in my tenure as the county attorney, so I was very involved, but my style of leadership is not to micromanage people and so I assembled, I think, a really great prosecution team in Rick Dusterhoft, Jeff Anderson and Clayton Robinson to actually handle the case—they have years and years of jury trial experience—and then I was updated along the way.

I know you have heard criticism about your team's decision to wait to introduce Yanez's initial statement to BCA investigators until he was on the stand. The move ended up backfiring when the judge and the jury never got to hear that audio from Yanez. In retrospect, was that a mistake by the prosecution?

Well, I think you have to keep in perspective that the people who might be criticizing it weren't really involved in trying cases and they probably weren't in the courtroom. We did the best that we could. With respect to the audio of the BCA interview, based upon past practice of how things work in Ramsey County, that was a statement of the defendant, a party opponent, and the rules say you can introduce it at any particular time. We also believed with 99.9 percent certainty that officer Yanez was going to take the stand based on conversations with the defense and other factors, so we made the strategic decision to introduce this interview through him. We wanted to make him listen to what he said on the stand and impeach him on the (discrepancies) that we thought were critical. Like how he never actually mentioned the word gun or seeing a gun (in his BCA interview), which was vastly different from what he testified in court.

So based upon past practice and what the rules allow, we didn't think it was going to be an issue at all to introduce that evidence through Yanez ... so of course we were surprised when the judge said we couldn't and that took us off our game a little bit.

But I think the public needs to understand that what officer Yanez said in that interview was still available to the jurors. Rick Dusterhoft just had to present it the old-fashioned way, which was to read what Yanez said while he cross-examined Yanez.

Were you surprised by the verdict?

We were. We thought the worst we were going to do was a hung jury. I mean, we felt we had appropriately charged this case. This case was about unreasonable panic. We thought our expert really laid the case down when we testify. We didn't think that the defense experts, at least two of their three, were very effective. ... It hit me like a ton of bricks when I found out it was a not-guilty on all charges.

But at the end of the day, that is what the jury decided and I am a big believer, and I have an obligation, to support that process. And I asked the public to accept the verdict, too, and I got criticized by some for that, but that is the process.

But I think there are some good things that happened as a result of this case, and because the state was willing to bring forward charges. And there is so much to learn from it. How we train officers in the future, implicit-bias training for police as well as everybody in the executive and judicial branches of government, (what are appropriate) use-of-force policies.

What kind of feedback did you get from law enforcement?

To this day, nobody has come up to me and said, "You blew it. You hurt us. You did something horrible." But I know for a fact, because I have friends in law enforcement who tell me, that there are a lot of police officers around the state that are very upset. They think that the charges were not appropriate, that this was a tragic accident, not a crime. I can live with that because I believe I did the right thing.

You're planning on running for county attorney again, right? Why do you want the job?

Yes, I will make an announcement at some point after the New Year. I have so many tell me, "Boy, you have the toughest job. I feel so sorry for you." ... I hear that all the time. But I feel very blessed and honored and humbled that I am in this position. I believe in the concept of vocation, and so I believe this is what I am supposed to do with my life.

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