As several dozen prospective jurors in the murder trial of Mohamed Noor filed into court for the first time this week, Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance assured them that their identities would not be revealed publicly, to protect their privacy and shield them from unwanted media scrutiny.
Their names and addresses would only be known to the prosecution and Noor’s defense team, she told them, and they were under strict orders not to share them with anyone.
In the meantime, those attorneys were almost certainly running background checks on them to predict whether they would make good jurors.
Monday marked the first day of Noor’s trial — the former Minneapolis police officer accused of killing Justine Ruszczyk Damond in a south Minneapolis alley two summers ago — as lawyers for both sides started the process of winnowing down the jury pool of about 75 people to 16 jurors and alternates. On Monday, they were given questionnaires that ranged in subject from their parents’ occupations to their interactions with police. The pool of prospective jurors consists of about 50 men and 25 women — 15 of them people of color.
The judge and the attorneys agreed Tuesday afternoon to excuse six prospective jurors from Noor’s trial based on their answers to the questionnaire.
The people who were let go include two women and four men. The judge and attorneys did not disclose their races or ages in discussing reasons for their dismissal, which ranged from having “negative” feelings about Somali-Americans to having already decided Noor’s innocence or guilt. Noor is Somali-American.
The decisions were reached after Quaintance and the attorneys had reviewed more than half of the completed questionnaires.
The people who were dismissed are: a woman whose friend was the victim of an officer-involved shooting, a man who said he was “tired of cops getting away with murder,” a man who had decided that Noor was innocent, a man who said he had a “bad mental illness,” a man who said Noor was a “fast-track hire” and who has “negative feelings” about Somali-Americans, and a woman who said she knows Damond’s fiancé, Don Damond, and Minneapolis police union President Lt. Bob Kroll, who are witnesses.
Jury selection is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday, during which time attorneys are expected to speak with 15 prospective jurors one by one, out of earshot of the jury pool for various reasons arising from their questionnaire answers.
The judge asked attorneys to be mindful of other prospective jurors who could also be of interest: the brother of former Minneapolis Assistant Police Chief Kris Arneson, a person who had decided that Noor was guilty, someone whose dad had been murdered and someone whose cousin had been murdered, among others.
St. Paul attorney Stephen Laitinen said that in today’s increasingly connected world, it’s almost automatic for lawyers to mine potential jurors’ online histories for insight into their values and thinking.
“What we key into is recent life-changing events for jurors: a bankruptcy, a divorce, a loved one passing away,” said Laitinen, a partner at the St. Paul-based law firm Larson King. “Because that tends to drive jurors’ perceptions about an upcoming trial.”
Cases involving police officers accused of misconduct are no exception, he said.
“What you’re going to be looking to see one way or the other is what is the person’s attitudes about government, and oversight, and law and order, and freedom, and policy brutality, and you’ll be looking at social media for things of that nature.”
Media access limited
In recent days, Quaintance has limited media and public access to the closely watched trial, reasoning that the jury pool must not be tainted. A request for comment from the County Attorney’s Office was not immediately returned on Tuesday. Noor’s defense team declined to comment.
Most people would probably be surprised by how much information a simple internet search can turn up, according to Tom Jaeb, president of the Heartland Investigative Group. Letters to the editor, campaign contribution data and Facebook posts offer a potential trove of information about would-be jurors for lawyers searching for any hint of bias that could influence jurors’ decisionmaking during trial.
“What kind of income bracket are they in, what are their hobbies, what are their political affiliations, and do they have a connection to that industry, so for example if they worked for 20 years for Medtronic, that would be of interest to the attorneys,” said Jaeb, whose firm counts jury consultants among its clients. “Criminal record history, lawsuits, anything else in the media, anything else just on Google in general — maybe there would be some databases that we tap into.”
His investigators might run a potential juror’s name through a public database, or scour open social media accounts for information that people posted about themselves, but avoid deceptive tactics such as “friending” a juror on Facebook. In most cases, sensitive information like a person’s credit history is off-limits, he said.
The scope of most background checks depends on how much time lawyers have to prepare; jury pool lists are typically turned over about a day or two before trial, he said.
Some attorneys or law firms hire private investigators to check out prospective jurors — or to verify answers given during voir dire or on juror questionnaires — he said, calling it a “growing cottage industry.”
“I would guess there are some companies that do this for 50 bucks a juror, and I would guess there are some that would be $500,” Jaeb said.
While the American Bar Association has ruled that running online background checks on prospective jurists does not cross any ethical lines, courts in several states have gone back and forth in recent years over whether such online sleuthing violates jurors’ privacy.
Social media posts deemed inappropriate have gotten jurors thrown out of court and, in rare cases, resulted in a mistrial.
Earlier this year, a juror in New York was dismissed from the trial of a man accused of strangling a woman, after the juror posted on her Facebook that she was “[s]itting on the jury laughing my a— off.” And in 2008, a British woman was kicked off a jury after it was revealed that she’d polled her social media followers to help her decide the defendants’ guilt.