/Her son was killed by a US police officer. Heres what she has to say about Justine Damond Ruszczyk

Her son was killed by a US police officer. Heres what she has to say about Justine Damond Ruszczyk


April 07, 2019 05:04:00

In the front room of Valerie Castile’s home is a shrine to her dead son.

Key points:

  • The trial of a former Minneapolis police officer who shot Australian woman Justine Damond Ruszczyk is underway
  • She was one of 1,000 people in the US shot by police officers every year
  • Philando Castile was shot by a highway patrol officer in the same city in 2016, but the officer was acquitted

It is filled with portraits and artwork sent from all over the world to honour Philando Castile who was shot and killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after being pulled over for a broken tail light.

He was a playful and popular supervisor at a local school kitchen, and Ms Castile’s favourite portrait of him bears the words ‘feed the children’.

“He loved life and he loved loving people. So he was a great individual, and I adored him,” she said.

In 2016, he became one of the roughly 1,000 people shot and killed by police in the US every year.

Among those victims is Australian Justine Damond Ruszczyk who was shot by a Minneapolis police officer the following year.

As the trial against the former officer gets underway, Ms Castile said that for these victims, justice is often scarce.

Mr Castile’s death was caught on camera

Unlike most deaths involving police, Mr Castile’s was live streamed on Facebook.

In June 2016, millions of people around the world watched as his horrified girlfriend recorded his last moments.

Mr Castile was covered in blood and moaning in pain; the officer’s gun was still drawn.

Valerie Castile’s daughter was one of those watching.

She rushed to wake her mother, who was napping after the American holiday of Thanksgiving.

“She came in and she was crying and screaming and hollering and woke me up, and I was like what’s going on? What?

“She was like, ‘my brother is dying, he’s on Facebook. He’s dying mum. He’s dying,'” she said.

It later emerged that Mr Castile had been pulled over 49 times — mostly for minor traffic violations — in what local activists allege is racial profiling.

When her daughter identified the location of the shooting from clues on Facebook, Valerie Castile feared the worst.

“That stretch of road … all black people know. Don’t go down that area because you’re going to get stopped by the police,” she said.

Ms Castile said she broke every traffic rule, trusting in God she wouldn’t crash, as she drove 160 kilometres per hour to get to the scene.

The police wouldn’t let her speak to Mr Castile’s girlfriend, so she raced to the Hennepin County government centre.

There, she discovered her son was dead but the officials made no effort to be kind about it.

“It made it that much more difficult to even deal with that situation,” she said.

“A horrific crime has been committed. Somebody has murdered my son, and you going to treat me some type of way?”

Hennepin County later apologised, but the worst was yet to come for Ms Castile.

The officer who shot her son, Jeronimo Yanez was charged with manslaughter, but was acquitted of all charges.

A city rocks with protest after another shooting

On top of the Facebook video, footage from the police car’s dashboard camera showed an unarmed man shot five times as he reached for his licence.

Protests, riots and arrests followed a verdict that many felt contradicted the evidence they’d seen in the videos.

“My son’s life wasn’t worth shit because he was acquitted. And you had everything you needed,” Ms Castile said.

“That man positioned himself and stuck that gun in the car and shot my son five times. And in our culture and in America that’s okay.”

Just one month after the acquittal, the city of Minneapolis again roiled.

Australian-American woman Justine Damond Ruszczyk called emergency services late on a Saturday night in July 2017, thinking a sexual assault was occurring in the alley behind her Minneapolis home.

Wearing her pyjamas, she approached the police officers who arrived on the scene, and Mr Noor killed her with a single gunshot.

The officer, along with the city’s police chief, were fired during a week of protests.

Mr Noor has pleaded not guilty on all charges, claiming self defence.

He has refused to speak to investigators, and never explained why he fired the shot.

Mr Noor’s partner, Matthew Harrity, reportedly said the officers feared for their lives after hearing a bump near their car.

He is expected to testify in court this week.

The judge hearing the case has stressed that Mr Noor must be presumed innocent, and proving guilt relies entirely on the prosecution.

For Americans, police shootings are a political issue

Justine Damond’s death has brought back bad memories for Ms Castile, though she is pleased that this case is proceeding slowly and methodically.

She felt the prosecution over her own son’s death was rushed through the courts.

Jury selection in Mr Castile’s case was completed in a day, while it’s taken a week for Ms Damond Ruszyck’s case.

However, activists and local news outlets have alleged that the court is being overly restrictive in public access to the trial to protect police.

“This has been going on for so many years,” Ms Castile said.

“It’s the same outcome. Even if they’re charged, there’s a situation where they may not even get charged. It’s the same outcome: an acquittal.”

The court and Hennepin county declined to respond to the claims of special treatment for law enforcement and court restrictions that shield the trial from public view.

It is the first time in the state’s modern history that an on-duty officer has been charged with murder, and mistrial risks are high.

Law enforcement groups say their officers do hard, dangerous work and are unfairly victimised.

Many police officers felt let down by former US President Barack Obama when he voiced concern about the killings.

Support for law enforcement proved to be a popular rallying cry for current President Donald Trump.

A nation-wide issue sparks local activism

Ms Damond Ruszyck’s case is unusual for a police shooting in the US, where most casualties are African American men.

King Demetrius Pendleton is a local activist who protested the killings of Ms Damond Ruszyzck and Mr Castile.

“We’ve seen so many white police officers kill black people, go to trial, get acquitted or have no charges brought up against them. [They’ve been] able to keep their jobs, having paid vacations and things of that nature,” he said.

As a black man living in America, Mr Pendleton said he lives in fear of routine police traffic stops.

“African American people were brutalised this way years and decades ago. We can look at back in the 1960s, and still there isn’t any change. Things are still the same,” he says.

Back in her shrine to her son, Ms Castile isn’t surprised by the riots and violence that have routinely shaken America after police shootings.

“We all bleed red, and for our society to say that it’s okay … I don’t care what uniform you wear. To take someone’s life is wrong, and that man shot in that car with no regard to human life,” she said.

Ms Castile eventually won a civil case, and received a $4.2 million settlement from the city of Minneapolis.

She used that money to help set up the Philando Castile Foundation.

“We help families who lose a loved one to gun violence regardless if it’s a police fatality or any type of crime,” she said.

The foundation also funds lunches for children in the local school district to carry on her son’s passion.