Attorneys clashed Friday in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor when a prosecutor took issue with what she described as the defense planting “breadcrumbs” during jury selection to bolster its case.
The defense’s questioning of 24 prospective jurors touched on several issues that are likely to arise at trial: employees’ qualifications to work at the start of their careers, teamwork with a partner, dealing with high-stress situations and attitudes about officer-involved shootings and police safety.
Defense attorney Thomas Plunkett asked the group if any of them followed news about officer-involved shootings, specifically citing the 2016 fatal shooting of Philando Castile by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. No one raised their hands.
He then asked if any of them followed news about the “ambush” of police, prompting Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy to call for a private bench conference, but not before three men raised their hands.
Plunkett re-asked the question, using the phrase “safety of police officers.”
Noor, 33, is on trial for fatally shooting Justine Ruszczyk Damond, 40, on July 15, 2017, after responding to her 911 call about a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her south Minneapolis home. He has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder with intent, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
The bench conference was addressed in open court during a break outside the hearing of the jury pool. Plunkett was allowed to note that Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance had asked him to change his wording.
But he remained defiant, a tone that has colored the last several days of jury selection; on two prior consecutive days Plunkett has raised the prospect of filing for a mistrial because of the prosecution’s objections to questions he asked prospective jurors.
Plunkett said Friday that he disagreed that his questioning had been an attempt at “indoctrination.” It was important to vet prospective jurors for any “strong feelings,” he said, adding that he was “comfortable” with the court’s compromise.
“I understand that you’re treading a line, but when words like ‘ambush’ are introduced, it sounds like argument,” the judge said. “It’s the characterization … that I think is problematic.”
Sweasy also objected to Plunkett’s questioning of an obstetrician-gynecologist on the jury panel about how the body reacts to stress and anxiety — in effect, Sweasy argued, turning her into an unofficial expert witness.
“I recognize very clearly where this is going. The jury may not,” Sweasy said, adding that Plunkett was spreading “breadcrumbs” among prospective jurors to further the defense’s case.
“I disagree,” Plunkett said.
Defense attorneys have said they will introduce evidence about Noor’s stress in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
Quaintance agreed with Sweasy, saying she was “particularly concerned” with Plunkett’s questioning of the OB-GYN.
Plunkett also briefly touched on guns, saying in court that “several” prospective jurors owned shotguns or handguns. Two men said they had permits to carry.
The prosecution’s and judge’s exasperation with the defense was compounded later when the defense waited until late into questioning to ask two prospective jurors whether they had concerns about their ability to serve.
A college student said she was worried she would not be able to complete her spring semester if Noor’s trial lasts an expected three to four weeks. Another young woman said she worked several part-time jobs and would face financial hardship because she was not being paid while on jury duty.
“I don’t know why this didn’t come up before,” Quaintance said.
Both had been extensively vetted individually by the defense and prosecution on Tuesday. The original pool of 75 prospective jurors were brought in Monday to fill out an extensive questionnaire.
Sweasy, outside the hearing of jurors, told the court that the defense was showing a “pattern” of questioning and re-questioning prospective jurors about issues that should have been identified much earlier in the selection process.
The issues with school and income came up late Friday morning, when defense attorney Peter Wold asked the panel whether any of them had concerns about serving on a jury. That was after Plunkett spent about 1 ½ hours questioning them Thursday and about two hours questioning them Friday morning in a group setting.
The two women were dismissed later in the afternoon. A woman and man were brought in as replacements.
The new female prospective juror grew emotional and rocked back and forth in her chair when asked how she would handle graphic video of Damond dying at the scene.
“Just the weight of it all,” the woman said, wiping away a tear with her hand. “It’s just very tragic — sorry.”
Sweasy handed her a tissue. She dabbed it to her eyes, and was instructed by Quaintance to consider over the weekend whether she would be adversely impacted by such evidence.
The judge on Friday also denied the prosecution’s request to admit two 3-D reconstruction “fly-through” videos of the crime scene. No stills from the videos, created via computer software and laser scans of the scene, can be admitted, although prosecutors can use data from the scans to establish measurements between objects, Quaintance ruled.
Jury selection resumes at 9 a.m. Monday. Quaintance told the panel they hoped to finish jury selection by Monday morning or afternoon and would start opening statements sometime afterward.