The 2016 shooting death of Philando Castile by police officer Jeronimo Yanez may very well be a horrible tragedy which was completely morally unjustified. However, even after Yanez’s trial (which resulted in his acquittal) and the subsequent release of the dash cam video, I seem to be one of the very few commentators willing to say that we just don’t know that to be true, and that there is another entirely different scenario which is still very viable.
I wrote about this case back when it happened and appeared on television to “debate” Mediaite founder Dan Abrams about it. My view then was that this situation had all the markings of a classic rush to judgment by the media and that there were a lot of things about the case against Yanez which either didn’t make sense, or at least didn’t add up to him having committed a major crime.
Since then, while I have tried extremely hard to understand why even most of my fellow conservatives seem to strongly disagree with me, my position hasn’t changed very much. My guess, for what it is worth, is that this shooting was a horrible misunderstanding which was created by the confluence of a nearly perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances. I am still not certain, however, that Officer Yanez wasn’t completely justified in doing what he did.
Let me stipulate that I fully understand the emotion that this case provokes. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, immediately broadcasting the aftermath live on Facebook made people feel like they had a unique connection to the case. The video of Reynolds and her four-year old daughter in the aftermath of the shooting is heartbreaking. And, of course, Castile being black automatically forced many people to see the case through the prism of race and other recent controversial police shootings.
This is a realm, however, in which too much focus on feelings rather than on facts/logic can be extremely dangerous and counterproductive. I believe that most people, including many normally sober-thinking and police-supporting conservatives, have been looking at this case far too emotionally.
There are two basic issues here. The verdict, and the issue of morality. Let’s first look at the verdict.
Frankly, I am mystified as to how anyone can strongly question the not guilty verdict here. Under the law, which is admittedly very favorable to police in this situations, it doesn’t even seem to be a very close call. You know who agrees with me? The jurors who heard the case, two of whom were black.
The initial jury vote was 10-2 in favor of acquittal, with the two black jurors siding with the majority. This was despite a huge amount of media coverage favoring the prosecution and the liberal white male governor of the state of Minnesota who effectively throwing Yanez under the bus for his own political protection.
I am not one who automatically gives enormous weight to jury verdicts, but when they go against what the media/public pressure would suggest, then they take on added credibility. This is especially true when they are also consistent with the facts, which I believe this one was.
It is unquestioned that Yanez at least thought that Castile was the suspect in an armed robbery, that he was told Castile had a gun, and that Castile continued to grab for a large object in his pocket after the officer commanded him three times to stop doing so (Yanez stated that he actually saw the gun). Under these circumstances, if it was criminal for a police officer to shoot in what he had legitimate reason to believe was a life-threatening situation, then I would submit that in very short order we would no longer be able to pay good people enough money to become police officers.
But, of course, there is the largely separate issue of whether Yanez did something “wrong” in this situation for which he should be morally condemned by society. This is a much trickier question, but one in which I have been shocked by the lack of rational thought used in trying to answer it.
Obviously, if Castile had no intent to pull out his gun in an aggressive manner, then he didn’t deserve to die. But that is a separate issue from whether Yanez acted correctly/morally.
One of the many elements which seems to cloud judgment here is the issue of race. But Yanez is Hispanic, with a good record, who was VERY clearly and extremely distraught by having, in his view, been forced to shoot a human being of any race. There is not a shred of evidence that race played any role in the situation, so in my opinion, it needs to be removed from the equation entirely.
There are those who claim that Yanez obviously “panicked” (presumably, without evidence, because Castile was black) and is, at best, a horrible police officer who is responsible for the death of an innocent man. In my opinion, the presence of the girlfriend and the young girl, combined with Castile’s final words being a seemingly sincere, “I wasn’t reaching for it,” have, understandably, made people presume that there was no other reasonable scenario to explain the officer firing seven shots in such short order.
However, I believe that an alternative scenario does indeed exist which, while hardly proven, would shed a completely different light on these circumstances.
We know that Yanez had very good reason to believe that Castile was an armed robbery suspect. While it has been widely reported in the media that Castile was not really the right suspect, no “real” suspect has ever been identified, and I am suspicious that this situation was never pursued because it was not in the political self-interest for anyone to do so once Castile was an extremely sympathetic dead man.
We also know that Castile was under the influence of drugs and had marijuana in the car, and that he had had an extremely high amount of police contact in his life. What if Castile really had just committed armed robbery and HE was the one who, knowing he was now in very deep trouble, panicked and tried to pull a gun on the police officer?
There are those who counter that Castile would never have told Yanez about the presence of the gun if he planned to ambush him. In this theory, however, Castile is already not thinking clearly, and you can actually argue that telling a cop not to worry if they see your gun would be quite an effective way of pulling off an ambush (to be clear, I am not saying that this is what happened, only that the scenario is not inconsistent with what we know).
The role Reynolds played here has, in my opinion, also not gotten nearly enough scrutiny, largely because she, very understandably, became a sympathetic figure and full-scale media-darling in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. What the PC media hasn’t made clear is that she very obviously changed her original story in several significant ways (specifically whether Yanez knew about there being a gun on Castile). Meanwhile, Yanez’s story never changed and was backed up by the video evidence.
And while much credibility has, not without reason, been given to Castile’s dying words denying that he was trying to pull out his gun, there has been zero questioning of the demeanor Reynolds exhibited just seconds after the shooting occurred. Not only did she, bizarrely, immediately start broadcasting live on Facebook, but she expressed none of the anger or outrage that one might expect if the horror she had just witnessed really had no justification whatsoever. While it is impossible to know how someone would react in such a traumatic situation, I have literally expressed far more fury towards police officers when they have ticketed me for traffic violations I perceived to be unjustified.
The bottom line here is that, as frustrating as it is, we often never know for sure what really happens in life, and there are many tragedies for which there is really no one to legitimately blame. Contrary to media/public perception, this case sure seems to be an example of both of these sad realities.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.