Attorneys in a $50 million lawsuit against a former Minneapolis police officer clashed Friday over whether the lawsuit would unfairly affect the criminal case against the officer who shot and killed a south Minneapolis woman while responding to her 911 call for assistance.
But after an hour of debate, U.S. Magistrate Judge Tony Leung ended the hearing without ruling on whether to delay the civil trial. It's unclear when his decision will come.
The lawsuit was filed in July, months after Mohamed Noor turned himself in to face charges of murder and manslaughter in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond near her south Minneapolis home on July 15, 2017. According to the lawsuit, Noor shot Damond, 40, from inside his police SUV after he and his police partner, Matthew Harrity, responded to her 911 call about a possible sexual assault behind her Fulton neighborhood home.
Noor's attorneys have said he acted in self-defense.
Noor's defense team has argued that allowing the civil case to proceed with the criminal charges looming forces the former officer into a choice between "forfeiting his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination or vigorously defending himself in the lawsuit."
Attorney Bob Bennett, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Damond's father, said in court filings that courts have to set a high bar for seeking a delay, adding it is unlikely that the suit would be resolved anytime soon given the "molasses-like pace infecting Noor's criminal case."
"Despite 13 months having passed since Justine's death, there has been little progress toward the final resolution of Noor's criminal case," Bennett wrote. "The complexity of the charges against Noor makes it all the more likely that he will seek continuances, delaying his trial even further."
Postponing the case would also delay the timeline for the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, which is handling the criminal case against Noor, to turn over about 8,000 pages of material, Bennett said after the hearing Friday.
An assistant Minneapolis city attorney said Friday that a trial date in the criminal case probably will be set at a Sept. 27 hearing.
Justine Damond's father, John Ruszczyk, the trustee of her estate, listened in on Friday's proceedings from his home in Australia.
Lawyers for Noor's co-defendants — the city of Minneapolis, Harrity, current police chief Medaria Arradondo and his predecessor, Janeé Harteau — also weighed in during the hearing at the federal courthouse in downtown Minneapolis. Each spoke in favor of delaying the civil case to avoid jeopardizing the criminal proceedings.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Beth Stack wrote in a letter to Leung that allowing the civil case to proceed could prejudice potential jurors in his criminal trial.
"Once the state criminal trial has been conducted, all of the evidence will have been made public either by the State of Minnesota or by Defendant Noor, and this civil litigation can proceed without jeopardizing the important criminal justice interests at stake," she wrote.
One of Noor's attorneys, Matthew Forsgren, said in court that should the civil case be allowed to proceed, his client probably would invoke his Fifth Amendment right, which allows him to refuse to answer questions under oath that might incriminate him.
Noor, who was fired earlier this year, is facing charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, the first Minnesota officer in recent history to be charged with murder in an on-duty killing. The police union said it filed an appeal, which is on hold pending the criminal trial.
Bennett said the department fired Noor for his insistence on repeatedly invoking the Fifth Amendment.
The lawsuit against Noor and Harrity 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.
The Star Tribune has continued to identify the victim as Justine Ruszczyk Damond, and not by her legal name Justine Maia Ruszczyk, because she had been using the last name of her fiancé, Don Damond, professionally.