A divided Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday upheld the murder conviction of former Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor in the 2017 shooting death of an Australian woman who called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her house.
Noor's actions met the legal threshold for a "depraved mind" when he shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond from inside his patrol vehicle in southwest Minneapolis, Judges Louise Dovre Bjorkman and Michelle Larkin ruled.
Judge Matthew Johnson, however, disagreed, saying he would have reversed Noor's murder conviction and sent his case for sentencing on the lesser second-degree manslaughter charge.
Noor's attorney immediately said he would ask the state Supreme Court to consider the case, although the court is not required to hear it.
Noor, who is serving a 12½-year prison sentence, challenged his third-degree murder conviction, a charge generally reserved for defendants in overdose deaths.
He became the first on-duty Minneapolis police officer convicted of murder when the charge was applied to him for "perpetuating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind."
In the appeal, Noor's attorney Thomas Plunkett argued that the depraved mind element wasn't fulfilled because Noor was carrying out his duties as an officer, acted in a split second and directed his actions at a specific person.
"We respectfully disagree with the majority's opinion published today in Mr. Noor's appeal," Plunkett said Monday in a written statement. "The split decision, while disappointing, is not entirely disheartening. The dissenting opinion raises compelling issues."
Larkin wrote the decision, saying that the "reckless nature" of a defendant's act can establish a depraved mind. "Thus, the evidence could be sufficient to sustain the jury's finding of guilt even if Noor's act was the result of a split-second decision," she said.
She also wrote that state law allows a third-degree murder conviction even when conduct is directed at a single person.
But Johnson said he would have rejected the third-degree murder conviction and sent the case back to Hennepin County District Court for sentencing on second-degree manslaughter, which comes with a four-year sentence, much shorter than what Noor is serving.
Citing numerous cases, Johnson said Noor's actions didn't meet the legal definition for acting without regard for human life.
He noted that Noor testified he fired the fatal shot at a silhouette through the squad window to protect his partner's life and that after firing, he went to Ruszczyk's side and assisted in first aid.
"Within minutes, Noor became distraught by the knowledge that he had shot and killed a person who had intended no harm," Johnson said. "All of this evidence shows that Noor was not without regard for human life, unlike the defendants in" other cited cases.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman's office issued a statement agreeing with the decision, noting the office was criticized for charging Noor with third-degree murder.
"Our prosecutors did remarkable work and the jury agreed and found him guilty," the statement said. "Now the Minnesota Court of Appeals has supported our legal theory as well."
Noor was convicted in 2019, a year before George Floyd died in police custody in south Minneapolis.
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is seen kneeling on Floyd's neck for several minutes in bystander video, is expected to go on trial March 8 on second-degree murder and manslaughter charges.
Three other former officers are to go on trial for aiding and abetting Floyd's death later this year.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747