Two surprise defense witnesses testified Friday in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, as three weeks of contentious testimony came near to a close. Jurors are expected to begin deliberations Monday.
Defense attorneys rested their case about 4:15 p.m., and Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance told jurors they would hear additional testimony Monday. Rebuttal witnesses for the prosecution are expected, after which attorneys will deliver closing arguments and the jury will be sequestered for deliberations, its members staying in a hotel until a verdict is reached.
Friday’s testimony began with Noor returning to the witness stand under withering cross-examination by prosecutors probing apparent inconsistencies between his recollection of the night he shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond and testimony from his former police partner, Matthew Harrity.
Defense attorneys also called two surprise witnesses who testified that they heard noises that night, potentially lending credence to Noor and Harrity’s testimony that they were startled by a loud sound on their squad car that made them fear for their lives.
“I remember hearing, ‘Boom, boom, boom,’ ” testified Michelle LeBlanc, whose backyard overlooks where Damond was killed.
LeBlanc said her family was struggling that night because her 18-year-old daughter had just been diagnosed with a fatal brain disorder. She and her husband were in bed with their bedroom window open. LeBlanc said she was either asleep or in “deep sadness” when the noises caught her attention.
The first noise, she testified, sounded like a city-issued plastic garbage can being thrown to the ground.
“Then I heard, ‘Puck!’ ” she said, imitating the other noise. “A series of noises. Our brains caught up with us and we thought, ‘That was a gunshot,’ but it was so muffled.”
Defense attorney Thomas Plunkett asked if it was the “subsequent noise” that sounded like a gunshot.
Yes, she said.
“The first noise was loud and it startled me and caused me to sit up,” LeBlanc said. “It’s a haunting experience.”
LeBlanc said the noises occurred in quick succession.
Defense attorneys have insinuated that the noise the officers heard on the driver’s side of their squad — described by Harrity as a “thud” and by Noor as a “loud bang” — was caused by Damond.
Prosecutors dispute that theory and tried to dispel it with testimony from a forensic scientist who said none of the 51 prints lifted from the squad matched Damond.
Noor is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Noor shot Damond about 11:40 p.m. on July 15, 2017, after he and Harrity responded to Damond’s 911 call about a possible sexual assault behind her south Minneapolis home. Noor, who was in the passenger seat, said the noise caused Harrity to yell, struggle to unholster his gun and look at Noor with fear in his eyes. (Harrity made no mention in his testimony of struggling with his holster.)
Noor testified that he fired out the open driver’s side window at Damond because he feared she could be armed.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Patrick Lofton aggressively tried to undermine LeBlanc’s credibility, cutting her off multiple times while she testified.
Lofton confronted LeBlanc with her interview with a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator after the shooting. The investigator had asked LeBlanc if she heard any noises before the gunshot.
“You said nothing,” Lofton said.
LeBlanc said she thought the investigator was referring to noise from the alleged assault Damond had reported.
Lofton asked LeBlanc if she read the Star Tribune and if she spoke to Minnesota Public Radio in the aftermath of the shooting.
Yes, she said.
Lofton asked if she told the BCA investigator she heard, “Pew, pew.”
“I recall telling one of the agents that I heard, ‘Boom, boom, boom,’ ” she said.
Lofton stood near LeBlanc at the witness stand with a transcript of the interview. As she tried to explain how “hundreds” of people swarmed her home after the shooting, including media, Lofton walked away and began talking, causing her to frown.
Lofton asked if she met with the defense twice. She confirmed she had.
“You wanted to be helpful?” he asked.
“I wanted to tell the truth,” she said.
Lofton asked if LeBlanc followed news of the case.
Yes, she testified, adding that the shooting had become an “earth-shattering” and “defining part of my life.” LeBlanc said she called both the county and Plunkett about the case.
Troy Amundson, who lives next door to LeBlanc, said he was in bed with the windows closed when he heard what he thought were “fireworks.”
“I know for a fact I heard one” noise, he said. “I thought I heard another one.”
Earlier in the day, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy repeatedly asked Noor why he made no attempts to confront Damond verbally before firing. He responded that he had to react quickly because he thought his life and Harrity’s were in danger.
“You didn’t know if Ms. Ruszczyk was coming at you, you didn’t know if she was trying to give you something, you didn’t know if she could have been trying to wave you down,” Sweasy said. “You didn’t know if she had three hand grenades under her shirt.”
Noor reiterated his earlier testimony that he was forced to react quickly to what he perceived to be a threat, based on several factors: the loud bang on the officers’ squad, combined with a bicyclist stopping in the road in front of their squad and Harrity’s frightened reaction to a shadowy figure at his window.
“I had to make a split-second decision,” he said repeatedly.
But Sweasy did not relent.
“And again, you could have in that split second made another decision,” she insisted. “You had absolutely no other choice?
“No ma’am,” he said firmly.
The defense also called their use-of-force expert, Emanuel Kapelsohn, who said Noor’s decision to use force was “objectively reasonable.”
Kapelsohn testified that if Damond had been an armed threat, Sweasy’s insistence on using verbal commands would have been “losing propositions.”