A former Minnesota police officer will stand trial Monday for the first time in recent memory on murder charges for killing a civilian in the line of duty.
The July 15, 2017, fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, 40, drew worldwide attention to Minnesota. But the case against Mohamed Noor is starkly different from other police shootings that have angered people in Minnesota and across the country.
The national conversation has largely centered around white officers killing black men, but Damond is a white woman from Australia, where media outlets have closely followed the case. Noor, 33, is Somali-American, a community that has made strides in Minnesota while facing discrimination and global scrutiny.
Noor, who was a Minneapolis police officer at the time of the shooting, is scheduled to stand trial in Hennepin County District Court on charges of second-degree murder with intent, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts. Noor is the second Minnesota officer in the last three years to be prosecuted for an on-duty killing and the first to face murder charges, although attorneys and academics caution against viewing it as a cultural shift in how the state handles officer-involved shootings.
“I want him to pay for his crime,” said Ahmed Yusuf, a local Somali-American writer who has published a book on the Somali-Minnesotan experience. “I want the victim to get [her] justice. But on the other hand … how many of his profession have gotten away with this kind of crime? How many of them?”
Experienced defense attorneys who have helmed some of the state’s most high-profile criminal cases say they’re not certain either side has the advantage going into a trial that will be watched around the world.
“As far as I’ve read, it’s 50-50 as far as who will win the case,” said attorney Earl Gray, who was part of the team that successfully defended St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez in 2017 in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile. “It’s going to be a difficult case for both sides.”
In the nearly two years between Yanez’s acquittal and Noor’s trial, about 24 officers across Minnesota have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing in 15 fatal shootings. Yanez was acquitted of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of reckless discharge of a firearm at the end of a three-week trial that nearly deadlocked.
While the circumstances in both cases vary greatly, common threads have emerged between the prosecution of Yanez and Noor: Prosecutors sought to contrast the defendants’ actions to that of other officers to show that the shootings diverged from best practices, while defense attorneys argued that the officers acted in self-defense and community outrage called for swift convictions.
The trial arrives amid tight media and public restrictions established by Judge Kathryn Quaintance. It will take place in a courtroom that holds about 30 seats — smaller than some others in the building, with limited seating for the public and members of the media. A video feed will broadcast into an overflow courtroom. Quaintance also ruled Friday that potentially graphic evidence such as body camera footage or medical examiner photos will be shown only to the judge, attorney and jury, not the public and media in the gallery.
“I do that because there’s privacy interest involved,” Quaintance said in the hearing. “It’s inflammatory, potentially. It’s emotional and it shows the deceased in extremely compromising situations and I don’t see any value in that being shown outside the people directly involved in the case.”
A shot in the night
On the night she was killed, Damond, a spiritual healer and meditation coach who was engaged to be married, called 911 at about 11:30 p.m. to report a possible rape in the alley behind her south Minneapolis home.
Noor and his partner, Matthew Harrity, responded, and while in the alley were startled by what Harrity told investigators was a loud noise, such as a slap on the squad car. Damond then appeared at Harrity’s driver’s side window, which was open. Noor fired a single shot across his partner about 11:40 p.m., killing Damond, who was unarmed.
Neither officer’s body camera was activated at the time, nor was their squad car camera.
Noor declined to speak with state investigators about the Damond shooting, breaking years of tradition. Minnesota officers have typically given statements to investigators within days of killing a civilian, usually stating that they feared for their lives. Nearly all have later been cleared of criminal wrongdoing by a grand jury or a county attorney.
But if seasoned defense attorneys are right, Noor may break his silence at trial.
Quaintance has ruled that no one else can testify about Noor’s state of mind at the time of the shooting, a crucial element in determining whether his actions were reasonable.
“The law is premised on how he viewed the circumstances — what was reasonable from his perspective — so I don’t see how he could not testify,” said Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “That’s also going to be a very difficult and strategic decision for him and his lawyers to make.”
Noor’s attorneys haven’t said whether he’ll take the stand; they have signaled that he’ll claim self-defense.
Gray, who put Yanez on the witness stand, said he would have Noor testify.
“He’s got to tell the jury what kind of person he is,” Gray said. “They’re looking over at this fellow and they want to hear from him. A lot of it in the Yanez case is they heard from him and they could tell he was very distraught.”
Noor’s attorneys, Thomas Plunkett and Peter Wold, declined to comment about the case, as did the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office
Bob Bennett, who is representing Damond’s family in a lawsuit, also declined to comment. Damond’s fiancé, Don Damond, is expected to testify at trial. He was not home at the time of the shooting.
The murder and manslaughter counts against Noor span a breadth of legal definitions that can seem contradictory at times and confusing at others. They all call for jurors to place themselves in Noor’s mind at the time of the killing. Ultimately, the case will hinge on whether jurors believe that Noor’s perception of the threat was reasonable enough to merit deadly force.
“Did the police officer have sufficient reason to fear for his life or the life of his partner?” said defense attorney Joe Friedberg. “If he did, then he can act with reasonable force. If he didn’t, he can’t.”
Francis Shen, a University of Minnesota law professor, has researched and published articles showing that civilians struggle to differentiate legal definitions when addressing a defendant’s mind-set.
“The bottom line of that research is that jurors sometimes have a very difficult time … applying the law as it is intended,” Shen said. “It’s tough for the lawyers to explain and for the jurors to understand exactly what the differences are between those three charges.”
Dennis Ploussard, a juror in the Yanez trial, said at the time that jurors focused on the definition of “culpable negligence” in their weeklong deliberations over whether to convict the officer of second-degree manslaughter — one of the three counts Noor faces.
The majority was eventually able to sway two holdouts after analyzing the legal definition of the charges, said Ploussard, who described their deliberations as “very, very difficult.”
“Negligence is something that all of us are capable of on a bad day,” Friedberg said. “It’s negligent to run a stop sign.”
However, he added, “Culpable negligence is something most of us would never do because there’s an inherent risk in it that we would not take — driving 100 miles per hour on the sidewalk just because you didn’t see someone on the sidewalk.”
Jurors can acquit or convict Noor on any combination of the charges. Some defense attorneys said jurors may want to give each side a break and acquit on the most serious counts and convict on the least serious count.
“It gives the jury options … hot, cold or in between,” Shen said, “and there may be some value in that, but it will make it difficult.”
Jury selection begins Monday.