For the third time in six months, a Hennepin County judge has sealed the identities of jurors who convicted former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor in the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, leading some attorneys to question the unusual move.
Hennepin District Judge Kathryn Quaintance first sealed the jury list in May and ordered again in July and late October that the information remain sealed. She cited Noor’s July appeal of his conviction as a factor in her latter two decisions.
“At this time pending an appeal, the Court finds that there is a likelihood of the publication of identifying juror information and of unwanted publicity and harassment resulting therefrom,” the judge wrote in October.
She ordered the juror list, profiles, questionnaires and verdict forms bearing the foreperson’s signature sealed until she decides otherwise.
“It’s not usual to keep this, the information about jurors, [sealed] for this long,” said longtime legal scholar Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “It still is an important case, and the people who made the decision to convict him ultimately is a matter for the public.”
Making jurors’ identities public is considered fundamental to the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees defendants the right to a public trial.
While Daly found no issues with Quaintance’s decisions to seal the list in May and July, he said her October order doesn’t properly back up her concerns.
“The problem for me in reading it is she hasn’t laid out a clear-cut basis for her decision,” Daly said. “She hasn’t laid out facts that show they’re still receiving letters, potential harassment of the jurors by who knows — people who are unhappy with this verdict.”
Quaintance made other controversial decisions during Noor’s April trial regarding access to evidence at trial that led several media outlets, including the Star Tribune, and open-government groups to form a coalition to push for the right to view body-camera footage played in court, among other issues.
The judge originally imposed tight restrictions on what evidence media could view at trial but relented on those limits after a challenge from the coalition.
Star Tribune Senior Managing Editor and Vice President Suki Dardarian said that while the newspaper and most media outlets don’t generally publish juror names, the media and public have a right to the information.
“I am disheartened by this ruling and the implication that we may never have access to the jury information in one of the most significant criminal cases in this state,” Dardarian said.
In her July order, signed 10 days after Noor appealed his case, Quaintance wrote that the court continued to receive correspondence from the public opining about the case, evidence and verdict.
“At this time immediately following the filing of an appeal and news coverage,” she wrote in July, “… the Court finds that there is a likelihood of the publication of identifying juror information and of unwanted publicity and harassment resulting therefrom.”
Jurors convicted Noor, 34, in April of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for shooting Damond, 40, on July 15, 2017, while responding to her 911 call about a possible sexual assault behind her south Minneapolis home.
The Minnesota Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in 1995 upholding the use of an anonymous jury that convicted shooter Shannon Bowles in the 1992 gang killing of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf. The court allowed the anonymity because of concerns about gang retaliation against the jurors.
Quaintance cited the Bowles case in her three decisions.
Defense attorney Marsh Halberg, who attended parts of Noor’s trial as an observer, said there’s a clear difference between the concerns in the Bowles case and the Noor case.
“The fact that the court has continued to restrict the identity of the jurors is particularly strange in this case,” Halberg said. “While preventing media contact with jurors before and during a trial has some basis in the law, I can’t think of another instance where juror identity has been restricted after the trial is over for any reason other than juror safety.
“A concern with ‘harassment’ is arguably different than a concern with ‘safety,’ ” he said.
The Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure give judges discretion in releasing juror information. Quaintance cited the rule in her decisions, noting that she “may restrict access to juror information as long as necessary to protect the jurors.”
Decisions made in the Noor case could set a precedent for other judges, given its stature, Halberg said.
“Few trials have ever received the national and international attention as the Noor trial,” he said. “It is very reasonable to assume that the procedures followed in the Noor trial will be looked to by other courts in the future for guidance or suggestions for how to deal with high-profile cases.”