A federal judge on Tuesday agreed to wait until after the criminal proceedings against Mohamed Noor are finished before continuing the wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of Justine Ruszczyk Damond against the former Minneapolis police officer and others.
In reaching his decision, U.S. Magistrate Judge Tony Leung wrote that he was forced to weigh how Noor’s decision to invoke his constitutional right against self-incrimination might impact both his criminal and civil cases. Matthew Harrity, his co-defendant and partner on the night Damond was killed, has also made clear through his lawyers that he would likely plead the Fifth Amendment in the civil case.
“The Court is extremely sympathetic to the fact that a stay ‘lengthen[s] the time during which the Plaintiff must address the traumatic events alleged,’ ” Leung wrote in his order, citing case law. “On the other hand, it is altogether probable that Plaintiff will receive little to no answers to his questions from Noor and possibly Harrity through this lawsuit while the murder and manslaughter charges are pending.”
A trial date in the criminal case was set for April 1, 2019, although attorneys for both sides are expected to return to court next March to argue pretrial motions.
Leung wrote in his order Tuesday: “So while Plaintiff should not be forced to sit indefinitely idle, his understandable quest for the truth behind his daughter’s tragic death would be enhanced, rather than diminished at this time, by a stay of this civil proceeding while the criminal trial proceeds.”
He further argued that allowing the civil case to proceed would place a “substantial burden” on Noor, saying that attorneys for Damond’s father, John Ruszczyk, would likely use Noor’s continued silence “to help prove Noor’s liability.”
Without a stay, Noor would be forced to choose between defending himself in the criminal case or the lawsuit, Leung wrote, echoing arguments made by several attorneys in the lawsuit.
Attorney Bob Bennett, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Damond’s father, opposed postponing the trial. He argued at a hearing last month that this would only delay the timeline for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, which is handling the criminal case against Noor, to turn over thousands of pages of discovery materials.
Lawyers for Noor and his co-defendants — the city of Minneapolis, Harrity, current Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and his predecessor, Janeé Harteau — all argued in favor of delaying the civil case to avoid jeopardizing the criminal proceedings.
The lawsuit, which seeks $50 million in damages, argues that the two officers “conspired” to turn off their body cameras during the incident to conceal “evidence that would incriminate Noor, evidence that would expose the false statements of Harrity, and evidence that would show the public and the jurors in both the criminal and civil trials the truth of the circumstances of Justine’s death.”
It also faults the department and its leaders for failing to properly train the officers.
Last week, Noor made his second court appearance since March, when he was charged in the death of the 40-year-old Damond in July 2017.
Damond, whose legal last name was Ruszczyk, but who went by Justine Damond professionally, had called 911 to report a possible rape in the alley behind her south Minneapolis home. Prosecutors say she was shot as she approached the SUV’s driver side window, with Noor firing past his partner, who was behind the wheel. Both officers have denied wrongdoing.