The former Minneapolis police officer charged with murder and manslaughter in the July shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond made his first court appearance Wednesday, where his bail was set at $400,000.
During the hearing, Mohamed Noor said his first public words since the incident in south Minneapolis, spelling his name and confirming his address to Judge Kathryn Quaintance. Noor, slight and soft-spoken, said nothing else during the 15-minute hearing at the Public Safety Facility in downtown Minneapolis.
Quaintance set his bail at $400,000 on the condition that he turn over his passport, surrender his firearms and ammunition and refrain from contacting his former partner Matthew Harrity, the lone witness in the racially charged case that drew international outrage and led to the ouster of former police Chief Janeé Harteau. Bail without conditions was set at $500,000. Noor paid the $400,000 conditional bond and left the Hennepin County jail late Wednesday in the company of his attorney.
Police union officials said that Noor was fired from the department on Tuesday.
Throughout the hearing Wednesday, Noor stood behind a glass partition in an orange jail jumpsuit, wearing a solemn expression. He barely turned to face the packed courtroom gallery, never making eye contact with a group of relatives and friends seated in the front row. Several dozen other supporters huddled in the hallway outside the courtroom.
Noor, 32, turned himself in on Tuesday morning, a day after authorities issued a sealed warrant for his arrest. He is charged with firing his gun from inside his police SUV and hitting Damond, who had called 911 to report a suspected assault in the alley behind her Fulton neighborhood home. Her death provoked protests and became a symbol, in Minneapolis and her native Australia, of how police shootings affect all communities. It also led to Harteau’s firing by then-Mayor Betsy Hodges.
Noor maintained his silence, choosing not to speak to state investigators or the grand jury investigating Damond’s death. The grand jury concluded its probe Monday, the day before Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced his charging decision.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy argued that Noor’s bail should be substantial, saying that he posed a flight risk, and that her office had developed “credible evidence” last fall that Noor had left the country.
The report proved false, but she said prosecutors grew more worried after hearing from a witness who claimed that he had “offered to hide [Noor] out.”
“These are the witness’ words, not mine,” she said.
Noor’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, said in court that the charges against his client were baseless, while calling the initial $500,000 bail “frankly, outrageous.”
He pointed out that Noor had submitted his DNA to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in June for testing, and later voluntarily went to City Hall to meet with an investigator after rumors surfaced that he had left the country.
Plunkett said that Noor posed no risk of fleeing, adding that the former officer came to Minnesota at the age of 5, escaping a civil war in his native Somalia, and had never known another home.
“He has no connection to any other place,” said Plunkett, after waiving a reading of the charges. “Your Honor, Mr. Noor is an American.”
After hearing from both sides, Quaintance offered the conditional bail and set Noor’s next court date for May 8.
“Officer Noor, like any other person charged with a crime in America, is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Quaintance said. “If he has a trial, it will be in a court of law, not in the media or in the streets.”
Defense attorney Ryan Pacyga said that he was surprised by the prosecution’s high bail request, particularly considering that Noor voluntarily turned himself in and has ties to the community.
He also scoffed at the prosecution’s depiction of Noor as a danger to the public, pointing out that his alleged crime was committed in the course of his duties as a police officer — a profession that is authorized to use deadly force if lives are in imminent danger. “The point is that we’re not talking about some madman, even under the government’s version of this case, that poses some particular danger to the community out there,” Pacyga said.
Jeronimo Yanez, the only other Minnesota officer in recent history charged in an on-duty shooting, was released on his own recognizance. A jury last summer cleared Yanez of any criminal wrongdoing in the shooting death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights.
About a month after that verdict, Damond was killed in Minneapolis.
Messages left for Noor’s father went unreturned on Wednesday.
The Somali-American Police Association broke its monthslong silence on Wednesday, saying in a statement that it was “saddened” by what it called politically and possibly racially motivated charges.
“We believe Freeman is more interested in furthering his political agenda than he is in the facts surrounding this case,” the statement read. “The charges brought against Officer Noor are not intended to serve justice; rather, they are meant to make an ‘example’ of him.”
An MPD spokeswoman on Wednesday confirmed that an internal probe into the incident was ongoing, but otherwise declined to comment.
Lt. Bob Kroll said claims that Noor plotted to leave the country were news to him.
“He was on administrative leave so he had daily check-ins with [Internal Affairs], I believe,” said Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, the union that represents the department’s roughly 880 sworn police officers.
He said they will likely file a grievance on Noor’s behalf to challenge the firing, which is standard practice in disciplinary cases. He said that he wasn’t entirely surprised by the department’s decision to fire Noor, who had been on paid administrative leave since the shooting. “I understand when you’ve got a person facing those charges, there’s a lot of pressure for the administration to get that person off the table, given the public outcry,” he said.
The union has come under fire from critics from both within the department and outside its ranks for not publicly defending Noor.
Noor, who joined the department three years ago, is named in a brutality lawsuit wending its way through federal court. Earlier this month, a judge in that case ruled that an attorney for the woman suing Noor along with another Minneapolis cop and the department was not allowed to ask questions about the Damond shooting.
Staff writers Elizabeth Sawyer and Faiza Mahamud contributed to this report.