It’s been a few weeks since the sentencing after the verdict in the trial of Mohammed Noor in Minneapolis … for shooting an unarmed citizen while on duty as a Minneapolis police officer. That shooting happened in July 2017, not long after a jury in Ramsey County found former Saint Anthony Park police officer Jeronimo Yanez not guilty of manslaughter in the shooting of an unarmed man named Philando Castile in … almost three years ago now. Writing on these two shootings might have been a little behind the times, but in the past few weeks, police in Arizona held a black family at gunpoint because their 4-year old child was suspected of shoplifting … and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg had to leave the campaign trail shortly before the debates in order to return to South Bend, Indiana (where he is mayor) to deal with the fallout after another incident in which a white police officer shot a black man. These kinds of stories keep repeating and the clear similarities – and differences – between the two local cases here, the shooting of Philando Castile in the greater Saint Paul area and the shooting of Justine Ruszcyk/Damond in Minneapolis, provide a lot of insight in to just what is going on here … there… and pretty much everywhere.
Let’s start with the earlier case: the shooting of Philando Castile by Saint Anthony Park Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez.
On July 6, 2016, Officer Yanez pulled over a driver named Philando Castile in Falcon Heights (a small suburb north of Saint Paul and east of Minneapolis). The given reason for the traffic stop was a broken taillight on Castile’s car. However, Yanez suspected Castile had been involved in recent robbery of a convenience store along that stretch of road and wanted a closer look. The stop was proceeding normally. Castile was in the process of reaching for his wallet to produce the identification Yanez requested when he mentioned to the officer that he did have a gun on him and that he had a permit to carry it. Seconds later, Yanez fired nine shots into the car, fatally wounding Castile. His girlfriend, seated in the passenger seat next to him, live-streamed the aftermath on Facebook as Castile bled out. Her four-year old daughter was in the backseat as these events unfolded.
Ramsey County District Attorney John Choi made the decision about bringing charges himself rather than working with a grand jury. In November, he announced charges of second-degree manslaughter in the death of Castile and two counts of reckless discharge of a firearm, due to the presence of the girlfriend and her daughter in the car. In making the announcement, he stated no reasonable officer would have responded to the situation as Yanez did and set forth the forensic evidence that proved it was impossible for Yanez to have seen Castile’s gun until his body had been removed from the car.
At his trial, Yanez was represented by one of the most prominent law firms in the area. His ace attorneys requested a change of judge, as permitted under state law – and for which no reason or justification is required. But it did cause the case to be reassigned from a judge who happened to be black to one who happened to be white. And although the defense could not strike every person of color from the jury, only two people of color were impaneled for the trial that began on May 30, 2017
When Choi first announced the charges, he made it clear that the physical evidence at the scene proved Yanez could not have seen Castile’s gun as the officer had claimed. One of the places where Castile was struck by a bullet was his right hand. The gun was in the right pocket of the shorts he was wearing. He could not have removed the gun without unbuckling his seat belt – which he was in the process of doing when Yanez started shooting. If Castile had been pulling out his gun, as Yanez claimed, then the bullet would have torn through the shorts in order to hit his hand. But there was no hole in the shorts. That must have been made as clear at trial, because, in the deliberations, the jury did ask to see Castile’s shorts again.
The defense insisted that the amount of THC detected in Castile’s blood at the time of death be presented – even though the lab scientist who presented it argued that, because THC is fat soluble and the breakdown of cells at death results in the release of all stored accumulations, such test results are meaningless. However, the judge allowed it. The defense insisted because it was important to their case that Castile be considered a drug user rather than the dedicated school cafeteria worker, beloved by the students where he’d worked. Part of the defense strategy was to argue that Castile was sluggish in responding to Yanez’s commands because he was high. However, at the same time the defense attorneys wanted him portrayed as sluggish from marijuana use, they also wanted him to still be capable of drawing – and potentially firing – his gun lightning fast.
But the biggest key to the defense was Yanez’s emotional description of how much he feared for his life. Police officers are allowed to use deadly force if they believe their lives are in danger. Like any belief, it does not have to be rooted in demonstrable reality; the belief only needs to be sincere. And Yanez testified that he truly believed he was about to be killed in that moment. On the witness stand, he talked of thinking only of his own little girl and his wife at home as he emptied his clip into the man in the car, oblivious of the child in the backseat car and the other man’s girlfriend in the car, right beside him.
By now, anyone who cares to has seen the dashcam video of Yanez’s stop. Most of us who have watched it wonder how the jury could have found Yanez not guilty. We see an officer losing control, yelling vague commands repeatedly without allowing time for any response from person he’s yelling at – and then he starts shooting and keeps shooting until his clip is empty. The jurors who have spoken about the decision say they wished the camera would have shown them what was happening in the car. They are sure Yanez had to be reacting to something specific that Castile was doing. That Yanez was most likely reacting to something that was only in his imagination does not seem to be an angle the jurors ever considered. He convinced them he truly feared for his own life, that if he had not shot immediately, he would have been killed by the driver he had pulled over.
What Yanez noticed, or recalled noticing, before, during, and after the stop is telling for what he claimed to have seen and what he clearly did not. He thought Castile had been involved in the robbery “because of his wide-set nose.” He mentioned making eye contact with Castile as he drove by and saw “a deer in the headlights look.” To have seen all this so clearly in a car just passing by (at about 40mph) suggests remarkable powers of sight and observation, perhaps even approaching superpowers. Yanez saw a black man and decided he was a suspect in a recent crime. Then, when he realized the black man had a gun, he saw a dangerous criminal who wanted to kill him. That’s what he responded to. The observation of “deer in the headlights” seems more a projection of Yanez’s own fears than a clearly guilty look on Castile’s face – since Castile had no reason to think he was a suspect in anything. In response to questions from reporters when Yanez was charged, District Attorney Choi stated specifically: Philando Castile was not – and never had been – a suspect in the convenience store robbery.
Yet for all the keen observations Yanez reported, he did not see the little girl in the backseat. When the little girl undid her car seat restraint and climbed out of the car, Yanez can be heard on the dashcam video yelling at the child to freeze, to not move. (I do wonder if he would have fired at her as well if he’d still had bullets in his clip.) But instead, Yanez’s partner recovered his senses and is seen in the video picking up the little girl and carrying her to safety away from the street … away from the car where a man who was like a father to her is dying … from her mother who is being treated like a criminal suspect, not allowed to move in any way – not to assist her dying beloved nor even her own child.
Despite his later claim to have seen Castile drawing his gun, Yanez is heard in the recording saying he didn’t know where the gun was. He never saw it. He could not have seen it. The physical evidence proved that was impossible. But the only way Yanez could avoid the guilty verdict was to convince others that he feared for his life; the only thing that would justify his actions would be a real danger of being killed. So, he convinced himself he saw the gun … and prepared to convince others as well.
He convinced most of the jurors, and so, he was found not guilty. It took them more than five days and over 25 hours. There was a hold out, but the judge would not permit the jury to fail to reach the verdict. The one man who remained unconvinced that Yanez was not guilty had his reasons – which he never disclosed to other jurors or to anyone outside of the jury. Apparently, he didn’t think there was any chance of moving the others to his side, so he gave up and gave in to finally be done. The jurors had their reasons for their decision, and those reasons may well have been good and right and appropriate. However, in the end, they reached the wrong verdict on June 16, 2017. Consider the similar case that followed – and note the key differences between the two.
Now we move on to the second case: the shooting of Justine Ruszczyk (Roos-check) Damond. She used both last names interchangeably but had not yet married her fiancé, Don Damond.
One month after the verdict in the Yanez trial, on July 15th, Minneapolis resident and Australia native Justine Ruszczyk called 911 to report suspicious activity in the alley behind her house. Two officers were dispatched to the scene. A few moments after they arrived, one of them, Mohamed Noor, fatally shot Ruszczyk through the open window on his partner’s side of the car. Apparently Ruszczyk had come to the alley to meet the officers … perhaps to guide them further … perhaps to provide more information … we will never know.
The incident was investigated, and the results were turned over to Hennepin County Mike Freeman on September 12th for determination regarding any possible charges. Previously, Freeman had stated he would make charging decisions in cases such as this himself, rather than rely on a grand jury. However, Freeman found his investigation was hampered by lack of cooperation from the officers involved and ultimately resorted to a grand jury in February. Then on March 20, 2018, Freeman announced charges of second-degree manslaughter (the same as for Yanez over a year before) and third-degree murder.
In the Yanez case, District Attorney Choi stated that the county could not bring murder charges because the prosecution would have to prove that Yanez intended to kill someone when he stopped Castile in his car. When District Attorney Freeman added murder charges against Noor, many voices criticized it as prosecutorial overreach and suggested it might be something intended for plea bargaining. Ultimately, Noor stood trial for both charges.
During the waiting for charges (which was about twice as long as in the Ramsey County case), and especially early during the investigation, many voices weighed in on what had happened. As is the case after any event like this, there were plenty of public tributes and statements declaring how wonderful the deceased was … what the officers might have or should have or could have done differently … and so on. However, there was one notable distinction. Any discussion of possible culpability of the victim in her death was quickly silenced. A few attempted to question why Ruszczyk went to the alley instead of staying in her home. But those questions were silenced with accusations that those asking were blaming the victim. Ruszczyk was never allowed to be presented or regarded as anything more than wonderful, beautiful, innocent, and fully deserving to continue living.
This was not the case with Castile. Descriptions of Castile as “Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks” were challenged: what about gang affiliations? … what about the marijuana use? … he couldn’t really be a good person if any of that were true. Even in the trial process, the base presumption of most jurors was that Castile must have done something to cause Yanez’s fear that necessitated the use of deadly force to preserve the officer from an apparent danger. Unlike Philando Castile (and other black men), the white woman’s reputation remains unsullied – even after the recent trial.
The trial was convened a year and a few weeks after charges were filed. Noor was represented by the same legal team that had successfully defended Yanez against similar charges in his 2017 trial. The trial started on April 8th and, finally, on April 25th, Mohammed Noor made his first statements about what had happened on that July night almost two years before. As Yanez had argued, Noor stated he feared for his life – and for his partner’s life. That he and his partner had responded to the 911 call, driven through the alley in question with lights off and windows down to see if they could find any indications of suspicious activity was a matter of police call logs. They had just called in to report the completion of their assignment and switched off their body cameras. Just when they thought they were done, there was some sort of noise or glimpse of movement outside the squad car. Noor described how his partner’s attempt to draw his gun alerted him to a threat outside the car. For some reason, Noor’s partner did not completely draw his weapon, but Noor drew his … put an arm across his partner’s body to keep him out of the line of fire … and fired one shot through the open window, fatally striking Ruszczyk. Noor stated he fired to protect his partner and himself from the apparent threat.
The jury was not convinced by Noor’s explanation. Within six hours of deliberation, the jurors found Noor guilty on both counts. Last month, he was sentenced to 12.5 years in prison.
The cases are similar: non-threatening civilian shot dead without warning by a police officer. In both cases the officers began shooting before verifying whether a real threat to their lives (or even safety) were actually present. Both officers involved are persons of color. Yanez is Latino; Noor is an immigrant from Somalia. There were questions about the backgrounds and training of both officers. Noor had been subject to a couple of disciplinary situations and there were questions if he had been rushed onto the force without being fully assessed. Yanez had taken a controversial “Bullet Proof Warrior” training program that encourages officers to be alert for potential threats at all times.
In some ways, it could be argued that Noor and his partner had even more reason to be suspicious and afraid than Yanez. They had been called to a potential crime scene and had found nothing – did that mean nothing had happened, the caller had been mistaken?… or was there someone up to no good who was still roaming the area? They were inside their car, easy targets, unlike Yanez, who was outside of a vehicle with far more freedom of movement to retreat or move out of the line of potential fire. Unlike Noor and his partner, Yanez knew what he was responding to and what he was doing there: using a seemingly routine traffic stop to check a possible suspect in a recent crime. Perhaps it was Yanez’s own deception in the traffic stop that had him most on edge in that situation.
But here’s the sticking point: If you think the jury got it right in the Noor case (and I think the jury did for the most part – although I do think the murder charge was excessive), then the jury got it wrong the Yanez trial. The jury in the Noor trial could not look past the reality that a black immigrant killed a white woman. If Noor had been white, would there have been that murder charge? The jury in the Yanez trial was okay with a Latino man killing a black man. True, in the Yanez case, both victim and killer were men of color (just as in the Noor case, both killer and victim were immigrants); however, when it comes to race, Latinos sometimes get a pass because “at least he’s not black.” A black man never gets the benefit of doubt. One wonders if charges would have been brought at all if Yanez had been white … or if he would have been found not guilty if the person he killed had been white. If Yanez had shot a white man under the same circumstances, he’d likely be about three years into a sentence like Noor’s.
Race matters in these things – it matters even more than what actually happened. Would it really be possible to find 12 people who could imagine that a police officer was so afraid for his life because a driver he stopped told the office “I have a concealed weapon that I am permitted to carry” that he fired nine shots into the driver less than a minute and a half into a traffic stop if the driver were white? Can we imagine a white officer being charged with murder for shooting a person of color who spooked him in his squad car? How often do stories like these happen – where a white person is shot by a police office under questionable circumstances? Not very often … which is why there was a conviction in Noor’s case but not in cases like the Yanez trial.
Like Philando Castile’s mother said after the trial, when reforms to police procedures were being discussed, we want the police officer to go home safely to his family at the end of his shift – and we want the civilian to go home safely to his after being stopped. Rather than searching for excuses, justifying the use of deadly force against subjects who happen to be people of color, these events need to be treated like “never events” in hospitals: What happened should not have happen and it must never happen again. When these “never events” happen in the hospitals, the investigative team goes over everything … sorting through what happened … what went wrong … what could have (should have?) been done differently … what will be done going forward to prevent this from happening again? Criminal charges and convictions are not necessarily the answer in police cases. However, in order to learn from mistakes, it is necessary to first admit the mistake was made.
And racism is the first mistake … unacknowledged, unquestioned bias that sees a person of color and sees that person as bad, less than, no good. It was easy for the jury to convict Officer Mohammed Noor in the death of a white woman. It was apparently impossible for a jury to convict Officer Yanez in the death of a black man – and even more impossible to imagine any officer shooting a white driver in a similar situation. Can you imagine police officers drawing guns to confront a white family whose four-year old picked up something she shouldn’t have in a store? Of course not – that would be excessive, over-the-top, inexcusable. But we excuse it when a black child is involved. Why? That answer is the problem. It’s not on black people to fix it. It’s on white people. We have the problem; we have to fix it because we’re the only ones who can.
Something to think about the next time – because, until this changes, there will be a next time … and another … and another … and …