As former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor awaits sentencing next month for the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, one of the verdicts against him has come into question by legal observers — a third-degree murder conviction that carries a sentence of more than a decade.
It’s a charge not often leveled in Hennepin County and is generally reserved for defendants who supply drugs resulting in overdose deaths. The charge’s definition as applied to Noor is also rare: that he caused Damond’s death “by perpetuating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind.” Veteran Twin Cities lawyers say that conviction provides the most obvious target for a successful appeal by Noor.
Criminal defense attorney Chuck Ramsay predicted it would be overturned because Noor didn’t have the “depraved mind” required for murder.
“The fact of the matter is he was a scared cop, acting out of fear,” Ramsay said.
Noor was convicted by a Hennepin County District Court jury Tuesday of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for the death of Damond in 2017 after she called 911 to report a potential sexual assault in the alley behind her home. Noor fatally shot her from the police SUV’s passenger seat as she approached the driver’s side window.
Noor was acquitted of the most serious count — second-degree murder — but he faces a sentence of more than 12 years on the third-degree murder conviction. The manslaughter conviction, which requires the lesser standard of “culpable negligence,” comes with a four-year sentence.
Noor’s attorneys have 90 days to file with the state Court of Appeals. They have not indicated whether they will do so. Noor is scheduled for sentencing June 7.
Defense attorneys have various avenues to appeal the verdict, but immediate post-trial speculation is on that third-degree charge and the requirement of a “depraved mind,” which in legal parlance doesn’t mean what it does in common usage. It’s a fuzzy area of Minnesota law that left experienced criminal litigators puzzling after the verdicts this week.
In Ramsay’s view, Noor’s conviction will be overturned because he wasn’t allowed to testify about his state of mind and that he was concerned about a possible ambush killing, given that a New York City police officer was the victim of one just days before the Damond shooting.
“The judge muzzled him as to why he was worried about an ambush,” Ramsay said. “He has a fundamental constitutional right to present a defense to this charge.”
Defense attorney Earl Gray wasn’t predicting a reversal of the verdict but said, “It’s hard for me to fathom him having a depraved mind.”
In 2011, Gray had a client convicted on the same charge in a more classic case in Ramsey County District Court. In that case, Fabrizio Montermini drove drunk at 115 miles per hour, crashing his car and causing the death of an 18-year-old passenger.
In the analysis of Brad Colbert, a criminal law expert and professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, a key factor would be the instructions the judge gave the jury before they went back to deliberate. The finest of legal lines lies between the “depraved mind” required for a murder conviction and “culpable negligence” of a manslaughter conviction, he said.
Complicating an appeal is an unrelated case pending at the state Supreme Court. (If Noor appeals, his case would first be heard by the state Court of Appeals. He could then seek review by the state Supreme Court, but there’s no guarantee they would hear it.)
In the pending case, State v. Hall, a woman drove recklessly with the intent to kill herself but crashed into another car and killed someone else. She was convicted of third-degree murder, but the Court of Appeals reversed, saying prosecutors had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the woman had killed “without intent to cause death of any person.” The court said that because the woman intended to kill herself, the state failed in its case.
Depending on the outcome of the Hall case, the issue in Noor’s case could become whether the state had to prove he didn’t intend to kill another person.
On the stand, Noor said he feared for his life and that of and his partner when he fired a single shot.
“Can we say it’s murder to unreasonably defend yourself?” University of Minnesota criminal law professor Richard Frase asked.
A depraved mind is “more than unreasonable behavior,” he said.
Frase said Noor’s physical defense of himself would have to be “reasonable” behavior, otherwise “any time someone panics, they can kill you.”
Minnesota doesn’t have separate laws for police officers, and Noor’s actions defy easy categorization, Frase said.
“It’s an amazing case,” he said. “It’s a terrible case and it’s a troubling case.”
The debate will continue, but Colbert warned not to bet on success for the defendant. Reversals for criminal convictions are notoriously difficult, he said.
Adding to the difficulty facing Noor is the global profile of the case. Gray said, “It would be difficult for the Supreme Court to overturn this because of the publicity.”