ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A defense expert testified Thursday that a Minnesota police officer used “justifiable deadly force” in the fatal shooting last July of a black motorist who had informed him he was carrying a gun.
Joseph Dutton, an officer for 31 years who now teaches classes on the use of force, said he is convinced that St. Anthony Officer Jeronimo Yanez saw a gun before he shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop in a St. Paul suburb.
Castile told the officer that he was carrying a firearm, and whether Yanez saw it is a key issue in his manslaughter trial. The defense claims that Yanez saw Castile’s hand on the weapon. Prosecutors argue that he didn’t see it and that he acted unreasonably in shooting Castile, a 32-year-old elementary school cafeteria worker who had a permit to carry the gun. Witnesses have testified that the gun was in Castile’s pocket when paramedics removed him from his vehicle and that it either fell out or was removed.
The shooting drew widespread attention because his girlfriend streamed the aftermath on Facebook.
Dutton said reviewed he reviewed all the videos, transcripts and police reports. He said he was convinced that Castile reached for the gun because of Yanez’s comments to investigators that he saw Castile’s hand form a C-shaped grip of the sort that would be used to grab a thick-gripped pistol. He said that was an “extraordinary,” important detail, though prosecutor Jeff Paulsen suggested it might have just meant that Castile was reaching to unbuckle his seat belt.
“I believe wholeheartedly he saw that gun,” Dutton said.
Prosecutors have portrayed Castile as being cooperative when he volunteered to Yanez early during the stop, “Sir, I have to tell you I do have a firearm on me.”
Squad-car video of the encounter shows that Yanez replied, “OK, don’t reach for it then,” Yanez replied. Castile started saying he wasn’t reaching for it, but the officer interrupted and said, “Don’t pull it out.”
“I’m not pulling it out,” Castile replied as Yanez opened fire. Castile’s last words were, “I wasn’t reaching for it.”
In the minutes after the shooting, Yanez told a supervisor variously that he didn’t know where Castile’s gun was and that he told Castile to get his hand off it. Dutton said he concluded that Yanez’s statements meant that he didn’t see the gun at first, but soon saw Castile trying to pull it out of his right pocket.
“Officer Yanez did what he had to do, which was to meet deadly force with deadly force,” he said. “There wasn’t time to do anything else.”
Paulsen pressed him on why he didn’t mention in his written report that both Castile and his girlfriend told Yanez that he wasn’t reaching for his gun. Dutton said he replied that he didn’t consider it relevant.
Earlier Thursday, St. Anthony Police Chief Jon Mangseth testified that the shooting might have been justified even if the officer couldn’t see the gun.
“We have to look at the totality of the circumstances,” Mangseth said.
Defense attorney Paul Engh asked Mangseth whether it would be proper for an officer to shoot if a person had his hand on a gun and refused commands.
“It would be very concerning and I would expect action to be taken, given how quickly things can develop,” Mangseth said.
Defense attorneys argue that Castile was stoned at the time of the traffic stop and it influenced his response to the officer.
They called Glenn Hardin, a former supervisor of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s toxicology lab, to help make that case. He testified that he examined autopsy reports to conclude that Castile had smoked marijuana within about two hours of his death. Hardin said his opinion was based on Castile’s blood levels of THC, the high-inducing agent in marijuana.
Prosecutor Jeff Paulsen attacked Hardin’s testimony by citing studies and testimony by a prosecution expert Wednesday that concluded there is no reliable way to determine marijuana intoxication from blood samples taken after death.
Yanez is expected to testify in his defense either Friday afternoon or Monday.
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