A Minnesota prosecutor said Friday that he won’t step aside but will add a special prosecutor to his team while deciding whether to charge a police officer in the fatal shooting of a black motorist whose girlfriend recorded the immediate aftermath of the shooting in a live video on Facebook.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said he was elected to uphold the law and intends to do so when investigating the July 6 death of Philando Castile. But he said he will “incorporate” a special prosecutor into his team to enhance trust in the results.
Choi named former U.S. Department of Justice attorney Don Lewis, who is black, to that role. The former law school dean also helped investigate allegations of excessive force in the arrest of a black community activist in 2014 in Minneapolis. In that case, Lewis said the officers were justified.
“This independent perspective can only enhance the integrity and legitimacy of our decision in this case,” Choi said.
“This is ultimately what justice requires.”
An attorney for the Castile family, who had called for a special prosecutor, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Lewis said he was proud to join the case, saying: “I agree those empowered to decide whether and how to prosecute must be accountable to the public.”
Castile, 32, was fatally shot during a traffic stop in suburban St. Paul. Video showing Castile slumped over in the driver’s seat, his shirt soaked with blood, was streamed live on Facebook by Castile’s girlfriend, who said Castile was reaching for his wallet when he was shot by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez.
An attorney for Yanez, who is Latino, has said the officer was reacting to the presence of a gun and not Castile’s race. The attorney also has said that one reason Yanez pulled Castile over was because he thought Castile looked like a “possible match” for an armed robbery suspect.
The shooting is being investigated by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Choi said he hasn’t been given the results of the investigation, and he had no details Thursday on timing. But he noted that it took 13 weeks for the bureau to investigate another high-profile shooting involving police.
Choi also said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll send the case to the grand jury or if his office will make the charging decision. He said Lewis would play a substantial role in making that decision.
Activists have urged Choi to avoid a grand jury, arguing that the panels rarely charge officers and the process is hidden from public view.
Protesters have demonstrated repeatedly since Castile’s death, often outside the official governor’s residence in St. Paul. Nearly 70 protesters were arrested this week as police attempted to clear the street in front of the residence.
Lewis is a former law school dean at St. Paul’s Hamline University. He has spent much of his career in private practice at a law firm he co-founded that focuses on defending corporate clients. He also has worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Lewis was hired by the city of Minneapolis last year to investigate allegations of excessive force in an activist’s 2014 arrest. Lewis ultimately wrote that officers were justified in the way they handled the arrest. He also recently served as general counsel to an independent task force that was reviewing policies of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis related to clergy sexual abuse of minors.