Body camera footage recorded by former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor immediately after he fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond is expected to be played at his upcoming trial, but out of the public’s view, a judge ruled Friday.
Only the judge, attorneys and jury will be allowed to view the video and other “graphic evidence,” bucking common courtroom practices in Minnesota.
“I do that because there’s privacy interest involved,” Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance said at a Friday morning pretrial hearing. “It’s inflammatory, potentially. It’s emotional and it shows the deceased in extremely compromising situations, and I don’t see any value in that being shown outside the people directly involved in the case.”
The same arrangement will be used when body camera footage recorded by Noor’s partner and two other officers at the scene and photos from the medical examiner’s office are introduced as evidence at Noor’s upcoming April 1 trial.
The evidence is expected to be displayed on a TV screen with its back facing the victim’s and defendant’s supporters, the media and members of the public sitting in an approximately 30-seat gallery.
The move comes after media members voiced concerns about public access due to limited seating in the trial courtroom in Hennepin County District Court, which has larger courtrooms that officials refused to employ for Noor’s trial.
While there is no information on how often such protocol is used in Minnesota to obscure public view of evidence presented in court, anecdotally, the practice is rare.
Graphic squad footage and a widely shared Facebook Live video of the 2016 fatal shooting of Philando Castile were played in full view of the public when St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez was tried in 2017 in Ramsey County District Court. Medical examiner photos documenting the 10 gunshot injuries, some from the same bullet, that Castile sustained were also shown with no obstructed view. Such videos and crime scene and medical examiner photos are commonly displayed to entire courtrooms without limitations.
Quaintance’s decision was not questioned or challenged by assistant Hennepin County attorneys Amy Sweasy and Patrick Lofton, or Noor’s attorneys, Thomas Plunkett and Peter Wold.
The judge’s ruling came after Sweasy said she had four body camera videos on a jump drive to give to the court for review. Her offer came out of a Feb. 28 in-chambers discussion between attorneys and the judge about how to present “graphic evidence” at trial.
“It evoked a very strong reaction” in the grand jury proceeding, Sweasy told the judge about the evidence. “We want you to see it before we hit play here.”
Quaintance said that in addition to the TV arrangement, she would describe the evidence to the jury before it is displayed.
The jury would also be allowed to take a break afterward to “help people recover from that,” the judge said.
Noor, 33, is scheduled to go to trial Monday on one count each of second-degree murder with intent, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Noor fatally shot Damond, 40, on July 15, 2017, after responding to her 911 call about a possible rape in the alley behind her south Minneapolis home.
Noor fired his weapon about 11:40 p.m. after he and his partner, Matthew Harrity, heard an apparent slap on their squad car and Damond appeared at Harrity’s driver’s side window.
He is the second officer in the last two years to be prosecuted for an on-duty fatal shooting, and the first to face murder charges. Yanez was acquitted in 2017 of manslaughter.
Friday’s pretrial hearing also addressed several issues:
• Quaintance initially denied the prosecution’s request to present 3-D reconstruction and “fly-through” videos of the crime scene produced by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), saying she had no information about who created them and whether they accurately reflected evidence.
Lofton proposed holding another hearing to allow the BCA officials who collected the evidence and created the videos to testify and vouch for them.
“I’ll figure that out,” Quaintance said. “I don’t have an answer today.”
• The judge said the Minneapolis Police Department’s body camera policy, which gave officers wide discretion at the time in terms of when to activate the technology, was not relevant evidence.
The defense had argued for prohibiting or severely limiting its admission. The prosecution argued that the policy helps give context, and that Noor’s supervisor turned off her body camera at least three times the night of the shooting, including while she was speaking to Noor about the incident.
Quaintance said officers can still “be pressed” by prosecutors about when and why they turned off their cameras.
• The judge said the prosecution can admit Noor’s body camera footage as evidence without having him introduce it if someone else can testify that the video reflects what was captured that night. (Evidence presented in court is typically introduced by the person who collected or created it.)
Noor and Harrity did not have their body cameras on at the time of the shooting, but turned them on immediately afterward.
• The judge granted the defense’s motion to exclude testimony from other officers about their experiences with people hitting or approaching squads. Prosecutors had pushed to admit it.
“The way to prove reasonableness is not to bring in a bunch of people in who say, ‘Well, I would’ve done it differently,’ ” the judge said, adding that only experts can testify about “industry standards.”
• The prosecution and defense spent several hours in the afternoon cross-examining each other’s expert witnesses, including defense witness Emanuel Kapelsohn and prosecution witnesses Derrick Hacker and Timothy Longo. Both sides have sought to severely limit or completely prohibit the other’s experts from testifying. Quaintance said she would rule on the experts possibly next week during jury selection.