Officer never saw Philando Castile's gun before shooting, prosecutor says

Last Updated Jun 12, 2017 4:12 PM EDT

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A prosecutor on Monday urged a jury to convict a Minnesota police officer of manslaughter for shooting a black motorist during a traffic stop, arguing that the officer never saw the man's gun and could have stopped short of shooting even if he had.

Prosecutor Jeff Paulsen highlighted autopsy evidence in his closing argument in the trial of officer Jeronimo Yanez, who fatally shot Philando Castile just seconds after pulling his car over last July in a St. Paul suburb.

"This is a tragic case, but this should be a very easy case in the eyes of the law," Paulsen argued, CBS Minnesota reports. "He chose to use deadly force as a first option not a last resort."

Castile had informed Yanez he was carrying a gun. He had a permit to do so. 

The 32-year-old school cafeteria worker was one in a string of black men to die at the hands of police in recent years, and his death drew additional attention because his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, streamed the gruesome aftermath on Facebook.

Last week, Reynolds explained her snap decision to record the traffic stop: "Because I know that the people are not protected against the police. I wanted to make sure if I died in front of my daughter that people would know the truth."

Yanez, 29, testified Friday that he clearly saw Castile's gun and that Castile disregarded his commands not to pull it out. The officer said he fired because he feared for his life.

Paulsen reminded the jury of a bullet wound to what would have been Castile's trigger finger -- and that there was no corresponding bullet damage nor wounds in the area of Castile's right shorts pocket, where he carried his gun. He also cited testimony from first responders of Castile's gun falling out of his pocket as he was loaded onto a backboard.

And he asked the jury to consider what might have happened if Yanez, when told of the gun, had simply stepped back a few feet to better assess the situation. The officer might have heard Castile say he was just trying to get his wallet, Paulsen said.

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A courtroom sketch of Jeronimo Yanez.

CBS Minnesota

"If he had done that, everybody would have gone home safely that night," the prosecutor said. He also alluded to testimony from defense witnesses who portrayed Yanez as a good and honest man.

"The victim in this case was a good man too," Paulsen said, and referred to Castile's job at an elementary school. "The kids loved him, and he was a role model to them. And now they've been deprived of that role model."

Yanez's attorney, Earl Gray, reminded the jury of the officer's testimony that Castile looked like a man who robbed a convenience store four days earlier. He said Castile disregarded the officer's orders and reached for his gun because he was stoned on marijuana. And he said Yanez was afraid for his life.

"He pulled out his gun, and he did what he had to do," Gray said.

Castile had THC, the high-giving component of marijuana, in his blood when he died. The two sides called competing experts earlier who disagreed over whether Castile was incapacitated. Gray hit the issue again in his closing.

"Guns and drugs don't mix. This is a classic example of why, if you are a user of drugs, even marijuana, you're not allowed to have a gun," Gray said.

Yanez, who is Latino, is charged with second-degree manslaughter, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and with two lesser counts of endangering the safety of Reynolds and her daughter for firing his gun into the car near them.

Conviction on the manslaughter charge requires the jury to find Yanez guilty of "culpable negligence," which the judge described in jury instructions as gross negligence with an element of recklessness.

The 15-member jury includes two black people. The rest are white, and no jurors are Latino. It's not clear which three members are the alternates, who will be dismissed after closing arguments.

Yanez testified Friday that he stopped Castile in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights because he thought Castile looked like one of two men who had robbed a nearby convenience store a few days earlier. A faulty brake light gave the officer sufficient reason to pull him over, several experts testified.

Squad car video played repeatedly for the jury last week shows the situation escalated quickly, with Yanez shooting Castile just seconds after the driver volunteered, "Sir, I have to tell you, I do have a firearm on me." Five of the officer's seven shots struck Castile.

After he shot Castile, Yanez is heard on the squad car video telling a supervisor variously that he didn't know where Castile's gun was, then that he told Castile to get his hand off it. Yanez testified Friday that he meant that he didn't know where the gun was "up until I saw it in his right thigh area."

Paulsen reminded the jury of the recorded statements on Monday, saying they should consider them accurate.