On Philando Castile and the Law of 3/5ths

3/5th’s of the Minnesota’s manslaughter law that acquitted Officer Yanez of the murder of Philando Castile referred to animals.

In the summer of 2017, Officer Jeronimo Yanez was cleared of all charges in the hotly contested murder of Philando Castile, a black man whose death was livestreamed on Facebook after he was shot seven times during a traffic stop. The jury deliberated for five days, and, as juror Denis Ploussard put it, their acquittal was decided by the definition of a few words: “Basically it was the way the law was written.” I decided to read the Minnesota State law that Officer Yanez was acquitted under. It’s five clauses and 225 total words in total, and three of those clauses refer to accidentally killing a man when you intended to kill an animal.

Black men are not animals, but they are often mis-characterized as such. In recent memory, Hillary Clinton referred to African-American youth as superpredators, claiming that “we have to bring them to heel,” and historically, black men have been bred like stallions and legally treated as chattel in the United States. If we accept for a moment that Officer Yanez thought Philando Castile was an animal –a big, black animal – and ended up shooting a innocent man, then the same law that acquitted Officer Yanez finds him resoundingly guilty under the other clauses.

If you don’t believe me, read the other clauses of the law for yourself:

In the State of Minnesota, you are guilty of manslaughter: “By shooting another with a firearm or other dangerous weapon as a result of negligently believing the other to be a deer or other animal.” Translation: If you aim for an animal and shoot a man, you’re guilty of manslaughter.

Some people consider a black man with a gun to be a dangerous animal. In Minnesota, however, if you take aim at an “animal” and you end up killing a man – in this case, a cafeteria worker who’s still wearing his seat belt within 43 seconds of approaching his vehicle – then you’re guilty of manslaughter. It doesn’t matter how convinced Officer Yanez was that that Philando Castile was an animal. According to the law, if he aimed for an animal and he killed a man, Officer Yanez is guilty of manslaughter.

3) In the State of Minnesota, you are guilty of manslaughter: “By setting a spring gun, pit fall, deadfall, snare, or other like dangerous weapon or device.” Translation: If you  lay a trap for an animal, and a man falls into it, you’re guilty of manslaughter.

Officer Yanez did not pull Philando Castile over for a robbery (a robbery requires following a felony traffic violation protocol which involves taking cover and pulling the suspect from the vehicle at gunpoint). Officer Yanez did not pull Philando Castile over for a traffic violation (Yanez is on tape telling another officer he wants to pull him over “…because of the wide-set nose.”) Officer Yanez pulled Philando Castile over because he was black. He set a deadly trap to catch what he thought was a “black animal” and he killed an innocent man. Officer Yanez is guilty of manslaughter.

4) In the State of Minnesota, you are guilty of manslaughter: “By negligently or intentionally permitting any animal, known by the person to have vicious propensities or to have caused great or substantial bodily harm in the past, to run uncontrolled off the owner’s premises, or negligently failing to keep it properly confined.” Translation: If you allow an animal with dangerous characteristics to operate uncontrolled then you are responsible for any murder that animal commits.

Let’s be clear: In a world where black men are men, and cops are people, we might not have these problems. But if black men are animals, then cops can be pigs, and if an innocent man dies because of a pig, the animal’s owner is to blame. Police are known to have vicious propensities and to have caused great harm in the past.  This clause doesn’t convict Officer Yanez – it resoundingly convicts the entire system and leadership behind it.  Police departments that don’t fire officers who violate protocol are guilty of manslaughter. Politicians who fail to set boundaries that keep people safe from police are guilty of manslaughter.

Minnesota’s law on manslaughter is woefully out of date. Only 20% of the law is relevant to man-on-man murder, and we will continue to let guilty men walk free until those laws are rewritten for the 21st century. In the meantime, however, we can also look at the meaning behind the laws those grizzly Minnesota woodsmen made years ago, and see if there’s any useful intent to be extrapolated. There is.

Officer Yanez is guilty of manslaughter. He is guilty of shooting a man he mistook to be an animal; he is guilty of consciously laying a trap that ensnared an innocent man; and the system is guilty of letting officers with lethal force prowl around without the oversight, protocol, or guidance necessary to keep all Americans safe.

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