About 75 prospective jurors convened Monday in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor and answered questionnaires that will be used to vet them when they return to the selection process Wednesday.
After the pool filtered in through security, Hennepin District Judge Kathryn Quaintance welcomed the group of 50 men and 25 women — 15 of them people of color — and summarized the charges against Noor for the shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond. Quaintance estimated the trial would last three to four weeks.
Defense attorney Thomas Plunkett introduced Noor, who stood and faced the group but did not speak. Prosecutors and defense attorneys were expected to spend the next day and a half reviewing the questionnaires and researching potential jurors, who will be called back to court Wednesday morning.
The hearing concluded quietly after two hours, but afterward several advocates against police violence rallied for greater transparency in the trial and more equitable prosecution of officers who kill civilians. Noor, 33, is on trial in Hennepin County District Court for second-degree murder with intent, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the 2017 shooting.
“Our hearts are with Justine’s family today, on this grim day that marks the beginning of her killer’s trial,” Todd Schuman of the group, Justice for Justine, said at noon news conference. “We must first express our outrage at the intentional and calculated decisions by Judge Kathryn Quaintance and Judge Ivy Bernhardson to limit the public’s ability to follow this trial.”
Schuman called for Quaintance, who is presiding over the trial, and Bernhardson, the bench’s chief judge, to move the trial to a larger courtroom to accommodate more members of the public. He also urged them to reverse Quaintance’s unusual decision to shield the public from viewing body camera footage of the crime scene and medical examiner’s photos during trial.
Schuman’s sentiment, which was echoed by other speakers at a news conference in the Hennepin County Government Center atrium, came the same day Quaintance divulged that she has received phone threats for her decisions.
“The Court’s chambers has received threatening phone calls concerning the Court’s evidentiary rulings in the case,” Quaintance wrote in an order filed Monday granting prospective jurors anonymity during the selection process.
At a pretrial hearing Friday, Quaintance ruled that photos from the medical examiner’s office and body camera footage recorded by Noor and his partner immediately after the shooting and from two other officers at the scene will not be shown to the public.
The evidence is expected to be played on a TV screen facing away from the media and members of the public sitting in an approximately 30-seat gallery. The practice is anecdotally rare in Minnesota courtrooms, where such evidence is typically shown with no obstruction.
“This arrangement is a First Amendment violation that cripples public insight into the trial, and is a slap in the face to advocates who have spent years working for justice in cases like these,” Schuman said. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
A coalition of Minnesota media outlets has also asked Bernhardson to reconsider the courtroom limitations.
Quaintance told prospective jurors Monday that she has taken steps to protect their privacy due to high interest in the case from the media and public. But, she told the jury pool, there was no danger to their physical safety.
The judge said the potential jurors would be referred to by numbers instead of names in order to limit outside influence to their impartiality.
Instead of the typical 12 jurors and two alternates, attorneys will select 16 jurors, four of them alternates.
Assistant Hennepin County attorneys Amy Sweasy and Patrick Lofton on Monday filed a list of 210 potential witnesses, including dozens of Minneapolis police officers, Chief Medaria Arradondo and Damond’s fiancé, Don Damond.
Noor is the second Minnesota officer in the last three years to be prosecuted for an on-duty killing and the first in recent memory to face murder charges.
Noor fatally shot 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 — an incident that immediately drew worldwide attention to Minnesota. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Activists at the noon news conference, including Minneapolis NAACP President Leslie Redmond and Nekima Levy Armstrong called for justice in Damond’s shooting, but said they felt the system was biased against people of color in police shootings.
Noor is Somali-American. Damond was a white woman from Australia who worked as a spiritual healer and meditation coach.
St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who is Mexican-American, was the first officer in recent Minnesota history to be charged with an on-duty killing. Yanez was acquitted in 2017 for fatally shooting Philando Castile, who is black.
“We have to care about all Minneapolis residents,” Redmond said. “More importantly, we have to start caring about humanity.”
Staff writer Libor Jany contributed to this report.