A Minnesota police officer was acquitted in the shooting of Philando Castile, and some families saw a pattern. Few officers are charged, and fewer still convicted.

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ST. PAUL, Minn. —

When the verdict came down Friday — another police officer found not guilty in the killing of another black man — a father 700 miles away, in Oklahoma, felt as if he were watching a replay of his own son’s fate. Other families of those killed in previous police shootings, who happened to be gathered in Detroit for a conference last week, felt reverberations of their own pain.

And on a street corner outside the courthouse where a jury acquitted a Minnesota officer in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile last summer, Castile’s mother, Valerie, vented a bitter frustration shared by many activists. “A murderer gets away,” said Valerie Castile, visibly anguished. “The system in this country continues to fail black people.”

After all the public scrutiny, nationwide protests and grisly videos of police shootings over the past several years, few officers are criminally charged, and when the rare case is prosecuted, hopes rise that justice will be served. More often than not, officers are not convicted, raising a question: Do divisions widen more between police and their communities if people view the justice system as having failed than if there had been no prosecution, no deeper look, at all?

Nine hundred to 1,000 people are fatally shot by police officers in the United States every year, said Philip M. Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who tracks police shootings. Since 2005, when Stinson began his tally, 29 nonfederal law-enforcement officers have been convicted in on-duty shootings. Fourteen pleaded guilty, and 15 were convicted by juries. In that time, more officers — 33 — have been arrested or charged with murder or manslaughter but not convicted.

In many of these cases, questions of guilt do not hinge on who fired the fatal shot, but on what officers were thinking when they pulled the trigger.

“As soon as the officer gets on the stand and subjectively says, ‘I was fearing for my life,’ many juries are not going to convict at that point,” Stinson said. “We’ve seen it over and over again.”

Other cities

Such was the case in Cincinnati, where prosecutors are retrying a former university police officer on murder charges after a jury failed to reach a verdict on whether to hold him responsible in the shooting death of Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black driver. In Baltimore, the prosecution of six officers in the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal-cord injury in police custody, ended last year without a single conviction after three officers were acquitted and the state’s attorney dropped all remaining charges against the other three.

And last month in Oklahoma, a jury that included at least four black jurors deliberated for nine hours before acquitting a white police officer, Betty Jo Shelby, in the shooting of Terence Crutcher. He was standing in the street outside his SUV, was unarmed and had his hands in the air for much of the fatal confrontation.

When Crutcher’s father, the Rev. Joey Crutcher, 69, heard about Friday’s verdict, he said, his thoughts turned to his son and parallels between the case in Minnesota and his son’s. “We’ve gone through this time and time again in different cities,” he said. “I’m beginning to think that police have free rein and they can just do whatever they want and they are going to get off.”

Crutcher said the legal process could take a toll on relatives who attend court hoping for justice, but must watch videos of their loved one dying again and again. “I relived that night during the course of hearings and during the trial,” he said. “They played over and over again that video where my son was walking with his hands up, and I knew what my son was doing. He was remembering what I told him to do. If you’re stopped by the police, raise your hands and put them on the car.”

Advocates for law-enforcement officers said the acquittals were signs of weak cases filed by prosecutors in response to public outcries. Earl Gray, a lawyer for Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot Castile, said the trial against his client had gone forward largely because of political pressure and a flood of attention over a video that Castile’s girlfriend had streamed live on Facebook in the moments after the shooting. “A lot of publicity was generated” from the video, Gray said, “which of course caused Ramsey County to charge Officer Yanez.”

Different perspectives

But for activists and the 2,000 protesters who gathered in St. Paul on Friday night, the not-guilty verdict was a painful injustice.

Some took solace that the case had been brought in the first place, especially given earlier cases, like the fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis in 2015, in which prosecutors decided not to press charges. Others called the trial a show, nothing more. “What else could we have expected?” asked Anthony Newby.

Castile’s mother said after the verdict that she had believed her son’s death would be the case to upend the pattern of “not guilties” and deadlocked juries.

The Facebook live video of Philando Castile’s last, bloody moments after being shot had set off two weeks of protests in St. Paul over the police’s use of force and touched off a chorus of demands to prosecute Yanez. When he was charged with manslaughter, legal observers said it appeared to be the first time a Minnesota police officer had been indicted in an on-duty shooting death of a civilian. “This time we didn’t have a man fleeing from the scene,” said Glenda Hatchett, a lawyer for the Castile family. “We didn’t have a man fighting the police. We had a man who was fully compliant, as his mother taught him.”

She added: “I don’t know what more could have been done.”

The jury’s verdict on the fifth day of deliberations after a three-week trial showed how different the same shooting could appear to protesters gathered outside the state Capitol than to 12 people inside a jury room. Prosecutors and Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, said Castile had been shot as he reached for his identification. Defense lawyers said Yanez believed that Castile was reaching for his gun. In a dashboard camera recording before the shooting, Castile — who was licensed to carry a gun — can be heard calmly informing Yanez about the weapon.

Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said many officers were paying attention to jury decisions in police trials like Yanez’s. “This isn’t cause for celebration,” he said. “A man’s dead. An officer’s career is over. And a split-second decision turned into tragedy. But again, I think what’s missed in the conversation is that sometimes cops do get it wrong. But there’s a difference between getting it wrong and acting criminally.”