Judge writes letter of support to jurors who acquitted officer in Philando Castile shooting

Judge William H. Leary expressed his support for jurors in a June 23 letter.

ByABC News
July 5, 2017, 1:19 PM

— -- The judge who presided over the case against the police officer who shot Philando Castile has written a letter of support to the jurors who acquitted him, saying there was "a failure to understand what you were asked to do" by the public and media outlets.

The June 16 decision to acquit Saint Anthony, Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez was met with widespread criticism after dash cam footage showed him shooting at 32-year-old Castile seven times in quick succession during a routine traffic stop. Castile was hit five times, according to court records.

Castile had told 29-year-old Yanez that he had a legal firearm in his possession, and Yanez asked him not to reach for the gun. Castile said he was not pulling the gun out, but seconds later, Yanez shot Castile while his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter watched in horror. Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, broadcast the aftermath of the July 2016 shooting via Facebook Live.

A mostly-white jury of five women and seven men ultimately moved to acquit Yanez of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of intentional discharge of a firearm that endangers safety.

Ramsey County District Judge William H. Leary III referenced the dramatic dash cam video, released on June 20 by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, in his letter to jurors, which was previously reported on by the Minnesota Star Tribune and later obtained by ABC News.

"The criticism of the jury’s decision of which I am aware has focused primarily on a reaction to the squad-cam video and on consideration of issues you as jurors were never asked to address," Leary wrote in the letter, which was dated June 23. "You were simply asked to determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether a crime had been committed."

"You were never asked to decide whether racism continues to exist, whether certain members of our community are disproportionately affected by police tactics, or whether police training is ineffective," Leary added.

But Castile's death did indeed raise those questions, coming amid a year in which several black men, including Alton Sterling, were killed by law enforcement. Castile's death sparked days of protest and raised broader issues about systemic racism and the use of force by police. The jury's verdict also led to protests, and at least 18 people were arrested last month in a protest that temporarily blocked a major interstate.

On June 26, the city of Saint Anthony Village agreed to pay nearly $3 million to Castile's mother in a settlement related to his death, both parties said in a statement.

"No amount of money could ever replace Philando," Saint Anthony Village officials acknowledged in the statement.

Civil cases have a lower burden of proof than criminal ones, however, which ask jurors to be sure of a defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."

“I write to reassure you that the criticism of the verdict some have expressed is likely due to a failure to understand what you were asked to do and that you faithfully fulfilled the difficult task you were asked to undertake," Leary wrote in his letter, which was submitted to the court on June 28. He also thanked the jury for their service.

Typically, judges speak with jurors immediately after a verdict is reached. Leary's decision to submit the letter after the fact is unusual.

A spokesman for the Minnesota Judicial Branch responded to ABC News' request for comment by saying "the letter must speak for itself."

Leary also declined to comment further.

"I appreciate your interest but I don't believe any discussion would be of any additional value," Leary said in a statement.

The Ramsey County Attorney's Office declined to comment on Leary's letter.

"We decline comment on the Yanez case beyond what we have already said through our office's post-verdict press conference immediately after the case concluded and a FAQ that we posted last week," Dennis Gerhardstein, a spokesman for the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, told ABC News in a statement.

A defense attorney for Yanez had not responded to ABC News' request for comment at the time of publication.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional content after ABC News obtained a copy of Leary's letter.

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