The Death of Philando Castile

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No clever titles today.

So.

The shooting of Philando Castile is one of the rare cases where there are no good answers, no simple way to determine guilt or innocence, despite how much we might prefer things were otherwise.  Proving murder or manslaughter on the part of a police officer is difficult at the best of times; when your job involves the use of deadly force, the fact that you used it cannot necessarily be held against you.

The shooting itself is pretty obviously a case where two very different men panicked when finding themselves in that situation, of a lawfully-armed driver confronted by a police officer.  The ritual of a traffic stop runs abruptly into an entirely different and far more dangerous set of concerns, since getting out a wallet can easily be interpreted as reaching for a weapon, but the ritual demands the presentation of a license.

Philando’s decision to inform the officer that he was armed was clearly the correct one, and if he’d stopped there to negotiate what the next step would be, he’d undoubtedly be alive today.

Sadly, that’s not what happened.

Instead, he panicked.  Not in the “running around screaming” sense, but that’s just the most obvious form of panic.  The more insidious kind that led to the demise of Philando Castile was present in both men that day; the panic that leads otherwise reasonable men to ride the plan down in flames.

Philando’s panic compelled him to present his license, and despite repeated warnings from Officer Yanez, he persisted in his attempt to do so.  In a more rational state, he’d almost certainly have realized how his actions could be misinterpreted, but panic robs the best of us of our rationality.

Yanez’s panic compelled him to open fire before positively identifying a weapon.  Upon being told that Philando was armed, he likely primed himself to shoot if necessary, and once that decision was made, every action becomes a threat.  Reaching for a wallet becomes a hostile act, and half-glimpsed items become deadly weapons.

Both men likely thought themselves to be acting reasonably and rationally.  Philando, after all, knows that he’s not reaching for his gun, so Officer Yanez’s shouts that he not do so are not relevant to the plan of “present my license”.  To Yanes, Mr. Castile’s apparent refusal to stop reaching for his weapon fits the plan he’s already prepared himself to carry out, “shoot the suspect”.

The resulting tragedy has been viewed millions of times.

But was it murder?

Legally no.  The legal charge of murder was never on the table; the prosecution would have to have proved that Officer Yanez set out to kill Philando Castile from the outset, and that would have been impossible.

Yanez was ultimately charged with 2nd Degree Manslaughter, and according to juror interviews, was ultimately saved by the jury’s understanding of the phrase “culpable negligence”.  Despite the evidence, the videos that seem so damning, the prosecution discovered how difficult it can be to prove that someone with the power to wield deadly force has wielded it improperly.

It seems cut and dried, officer instigates traffic stop, comes into contact with reasonable gun owner, officer allows fear of armed black men drive him into killing a man who was just trying to comply with instructions.

Because let’s be honest, that’s exactly what happened.

The problem is that we’d have a very difficult time proving it.  It seems obvious from the outside looking in, but when a police officer shoots someone, the officer’s subjective analysis of the situation becomes the key factor.

And if you convince the jury to put themselves in the officer’s shoes…  “I instructed the suspect not to reach for his weapon, the suspect persisted in reaching for something, I repeated my instructions, the suspect still persisted, and upon seeing something I thought to be a firearm I opened fire”.

Suffice to say that I was not surprised by the verdict.  Saddened, yes.  Surprised, no.