Judge in Minnesota police shooting offers jurors support

Officer Yanez took the stand on Friday. Drawing by Cedric Hohnstadt

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- The judge who presided over the manslaughter trial of a Minnesota police officer acquitted in the fatal shooting of black motorist Philando Castile took the unusual step of writing to the jurors to tell them that he supports them despite widespread public criticism of their verdict.

"I write to re-assure you that you faithfully fulfilled the difficult task you were asked to undertake," Ramsey County District Judge William Leary III said in his letter to the jury, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported Tuesday.

The judge told jurors he was not providing his own opinion of St. Anthony officer Jeronimo Yanez's actions during the fatal traffic stop last July in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights, but wanted to convey that their verdict "was fully supported by a fair interpretation of the evidence and the law you were obligated to apply."

VERDICT: Officer Jeronimo Yanez found not guilty in shooting of Philando Castile

THE JURY: Yanez trial juror explains difficult process of reaching verdict

VIDEO RELEASED: Evidence released from trial, investigation of Officer Jeronimo Yanez

Reached Monday, Leary issued a short statement to the newspaper that said, "I appreciate your interest, but I don't believe any discussion would be of any additional value."

The verdict on June 16 sparked a rally at the State Capitol, which gave way to a march through St. Paul that shut down light rail service and ended with a confrontation with authorities on Interstate 94.

Leary sent his letter a few days after authorities released dramatic dashboard camera video showing the Latino officer firing seven shots at the 32-year-old elementary school cafeteria worker in a matter of seconds, just after Castile informed Yanez he was armed. The shooting gained widespread attention after Castile's girlfriend, who was in the car with her then-4-year-old daughter, livestreamed its gruesome aftermath on Facebook.

During his trial, Yanez, 29, testified that Castile ignored his commands not to pull out his gun. The officer said he feared for his life. According to squad car video that captured the shooting, Castile said "I'm not pulling it out" before Yanez opened fire. Castile's last words were: "I wasn't reaching ... "

Reynolds later said Castile was reaching for his wallet.

In his letter, Leary broke down the multiple elements of the law that prosecutors were required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, including whether Yanez acted with gross negligence and recklessness.

"The state's failure to prove any of the required elements of the charge required that you, the jury, return a verdict of not guilty," Leary wrote.

Leary wrote that the criticism has focused primarily on reaction to the squad car video and issues that the jury was never asked to address.

"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," he said. "You were simply asked to determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether a crime had been committed."

Yanez attorney Earl Gray said he appreciated Leary's letter.

"He told the jury they followed the law and did their duty," Gray said. "I'm sure the jurors felt better."

The Ramsey County Attorney's Office did not respond to the newspaper's request for comment Monday, and did not immediately respond to a request from The Associated Press Tuesday.

"It's unusual to do a letter after the fact, but there's nothing inappropriate about this letter," said local defense attorney Joe Tamburino, who was not involved in the case. "I say hats off to him for doing this, because the jury received an inordinate amount of criticism. The issue was whether the state proved its case, not greater social issues."