This month our country was stunned by another jury verdict exonerating a police officer for criminal conduct in shooting an innocent black person. Police officer Jeronimo Yanez of St. Anthony Minnesota shot Philando Castile five times during a routine traffic stop in which Mr. Castile volunteered the information that he was in lawful possession of a firearm.
The video footage of the incident is heartbreaking. Mr. Castile’s girlfriend demonstrated remarkable composure, respect and even deference to the officer as her boyfriend lay dying. Even more gut wrenching is the bodycam footage released this week showing the officer literally becoming unhinged and firing shot after shot into his helpless victim. Then there’s the final excruciating image of the child in the backseat getting out of the car in the aftermath of the shooting.
It’s difficult for me to indict the legal system to which I’ve devoted my career or the jury of twelve that included two members of the black community (who incidentally voted to acquit within the first day of deliberations). I remind myself that we do not see the evidence as they see it; nor is the court of public opinion bound by the rules of evidence or the law as laid out in the jury instructions. I know members of the jury can feel cowed or hamstrung by those instructions, and yet, in my experience, the majority of the time they do their duty and follow the law. But I can’t shake the feeling that justice was not served in that criminal court in Minnesota. So, is there a small measure of solace knowing that the Castile family has a second chance at justice in civil court, the arena in which I practice? A bit, just a tiny bit.
Likely due to public pressure and outcry, the family’s quest for a civil remedy proved less arduous. Shortly after the bodycam video was released this week the City of St. Anthony announced the settlement of the Castile family’s civil case against it for $3,000,000, the limits of the City’s insurance policy. Is this mere consolation? It certainly is. There is no amount of money that can restore Philando Castile to his loved ones, or obliterate the images of that horrific incident. Nevertheless, it does represent a form of justice within the design or our imperfect legal system, something the family can hold onto that represents acknowledgement by the wrongdoer that they indeed suffered a wrong. It empowers them to use the settlement money to honor the memory of their loved one. This may be in the form of their own mental health care or grief counseling, a memorial, a scholarship fund or any number of ways that hopefully sets them on the path to healing.
If they operate as intended, in their purest form civil damages should also have a deterrent effect. No entity, or insurer, for that matter, wants to see its payment of a multi-million dollar settlement on the news crawl, or reported at the city council meeting. And as we know there have been many such settlements recently: Tamir Rice, $6 million, Freddie Gray, $6.4 million, Eric Garner, $5.9 million. Heads do roll, regulators come knocking, people lose their jobs and those in power are taken to account. When the dust settles, the eternal optimist, Officer of the Court in me hopes that better police training programs are implemented, regular and mandatory on-the-job training includes race and cultural sensitivity training and counseling, that concerted and innovative efforts are made by police departments to engage the community and restore trust.
We’ve never gotten this quite right. In the face of so much that is wrong, a firestorm of tremendous loss and injustice, civil damages can carve the way forward; and generally, is the only one that lowers the grade on that steep road toward healing for a nation and every single one of its citizens.