US & Canada

The view from Philando Castile's empty seat on the porch

Darius Taylor on his mother's porch
Image caption Darius Taylor on his mother's porch

The police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop will now face manslaughter charges. Castile's friends and family say newly revealed evidence confirms what they have been saying for months: he was an innocent victim.

Since they were little boys, Castile and his three best friends could reliably be found on the same rickety porch in the Summit-University neighbourhood of St Paul, Minnesota. Today, it is cluttered with mismatched and broken chairs, old fence posts. But it always provided a perfect perch from which they could survey the goings-on in the neighbourhood.

"This is the safe zone," explained Rayshawn Jackson. "I been kicking it on this porch since forever."

Image caption Rayshawn Jackson at the porch in August

On Wednesday, Jackson, Castile's 33-year-old cousin, heard the news from a co-worker at his job as a cook. The police officer who shot and killed Castile had been charged with felony manslaughter.

Instead of watching the video of the press conference on his phone or reading the deluge of news articles, Jackson waited until his shift ended, then headed for the porch. He trudged up the familiar steps to meet 32-year-old Darius Taylor so they could find out what happened to their friend.

Even now it is difficult to wrap their heads around - Castile's name is known internationally, for terrible reasons. On 6 July, Castile's girlfriend Diamond Reynolds broadcast his final moments live on Facebook, just seconds after he was shot seven times by a police officer during a traffic stop.

Reynolds narrated what had happened as the world watched Castile slipping away, his white shirt soaked in blood. They had been pulled over for a broken tail light, and Castile told the officer he had a licensed handgun on him. As he reached for his wallet, Reynolds said, the officer suddenly opened fire. Her four-year-old daughter was in the backseat.

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Media caption"You shot four bullets into him, sir" - Philando Castile's girlfriend, Lavish Reynolds, live-streamed the aftermath of the shooting

Supporters of the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, were quick to cast doubt on Reynold's version, calling her a fame-seeker, or saying that Castile was fleeing an armed robbery at a convenience store. An investigation into the shooting by state and local authorities dragged on for 19 weeks. On Wednesday, the flurry of speculation and character attacks came to a close with an announcement from Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.

Choi charged Yanez with felony second degree manslaughter, and two felony endangerment charges for placing Reynolds and her daughter at risk. He also revealed that the entire encounter had been captured on a squad car's dash camera, revealing that Reynolds had been telling the truth. Castile told Yanez repeatedly that he was not reaching for the gun in his pocket before Yanez opened fire, shooting Castile seven times. Their interaction lasted less than 60 seconds.

In Castile's wallet, police found his permit to legally carry the firearm.

"To those who would say this incident is Philando Castile's fault," said Choi. "I would submit that no reasonable officer knowing seeing and hearing what Officer Yanez did at the time would have used deadly force under these circumstances."

The transcript

Philando Castile: Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me.

Officer Jeronimo Yanez: (interrupting) Okay. Okay, don't reach for it then.

Castile: I'm ... I'm ... [inaudible] reaching ...

Yanez: (interrupting) Don't pull it out.

Castile: I'm not pulling it out.

Reynolds: He's not pulling it out.

Yanez: Don't pull it out! (Yanez opens fire)

Castile: I wasn't reaching for it.

SOURCE: Ramsey County Attorney

Watching the video of the press conference with Jackson, Taylor broke down.

"I could hear him saying it," he said. "He's not an aggressive guy - he's soft spoken. I could just see him."

Choi called Castile "calm", "compliant" and "respectful". The prosecutor cleared both Castile and Reynolds of any wrongdoing during the incident. Choi ended the persistent, unfounded rumours that Castile had just robbed a convenience store.

None of this was news to Castile's friends.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Prosecutor John Choi said "unreasonable fear" could not justify the use of deadly force

"This was an innocent person, a taxpaying person, a citizen," said Jackson.

It's been a trying four months for the Castile family, who grew weary of defending their son's life from attack. Greg Crockett, another regular on Taylor's porch, experienced it as well, seeing all manner of conspiracy theories and slanderous accusations pop up about his friend on social media.

"He worked hard for his money. He didn't rob no gas station," Crockett said. "I swear to you I feel it in my soul."

The porch is about four blocks away from the apartment above a shop where Castile lived with his mother as a little kid. They'd moved from St Louis, Missouri, in order to escape violent surroundings. They settled just blocks from the stately, two-storey grey house where Castile's grandparents lived, a kind of base of operations for the rapidly growing Castile clan.

"All the grandkids was raised in that house," said Jackson. "That was like the day care."

Image copyright Courtesy Allysza Castile
Image caption Philando Castile on the porch in a photo from 2013

By cutting behind the house, Castile and Jackson would emerge at Taylor's, climb up onto the porch, and watch the neighbourhood pass by.

"'Y'all boring,'" Taylor remembers the other boys taunting them when they preferred to sit rather than accompany them on more mischievous adventures.

Instead, they played football in a vacant lot, haggled over basketball cards. They rode their bikes around the neighbourhood, which even in the 1990s still had the residual feel of a small town. It had once been at the heart of the thriving, historically black neighbourhood known as Rondo, which was decimated by the construction of the I-94 highway in the 1960s.

As Castile was growing up, there were more drugs, more fights. None of that appealed to him, say his friends - an asthmatic boy in glasses and braces who excelled at pretty much any video game he tried.

"Phil was basically the same dude as a 12, 13-year-old as he was as a 32-year-old," said Crockett. "He was always quiet. He never got angry. He never, ever got angry."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Greg Crockett on the day of Castile's funeral

It was also around this time that Crockett recalled one of their first encounters with police, while walking from one of their houses to another after dark. A police car pulled up alongside of them. Without thinking, Crockett said, they all took off running.

"I went and hid in the bushes," said Crockett. "I don't know why."

Over the years, the friends racked up dozens of experiences being pulled over or ticketed by the police for various driving violations - since the age of 19, Castile was pulled over 52 times, an average of three stops every year.

Jackson said that his cousin's choice to stay out of trouble, maintain a clean record, and to move up the ranks of the St Paul Public School's food services division, was a deliberate one.

"There was plenty of times our cousins and friends tried to get us to do stuff in the streets or whatever, but he wasn't on that," said Jackson. "He had a vision and he wanted to fulfil that vision, and just be a citizen and work a nine to five, honest job."

Image caption Jackson's T-shirt with pictures of them together: "Is there a heaven for a G?"

After watching Choi's announcement at Taylor's house, the two friends went to a rally at JJ Hill Montessori Magnet School, where Castile worked. Taylor held a hand-painted sign over his head: "Yanez Murdered Castile".

"Some justice is better than none," said Jackson. "[But] it should have been farther than manslaughter."

There will almost certainly be a trial - the union representing the officer put out a statement cautioning that "Officer Yanez is innocent of these charges until proven guilty".

Meanwhile, life on the porch will never be the same. The Castile's family home around the corner was lost to foreclosure years ago. New houses are springing up in the vacant lots they once used as a football field - the families they knew are leaving under the persistent nudge of gentrification.

On the porch, there will always be an empty seat.

"I lost my guy," said Crockett. "That's hundreds of hours of conversation that have not taken place."

Image caption The spot on the side of the road where Castile was shot by officer Yanez