The murder case against former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor took a hit Friday when a judge restricted prosecutors from presenting several pieces of evidence at his upcoming trial, including the officer’s prior work performance and a psychological exam.
Noor, 33, also pleaded not guilty Friday in the July 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond. His attorney, Thomas Plunkett, entered the plea on his behalf. Noor did not speak during the 30-minute hearing, and he left the proceeding without comment.
Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance issued several rulings Friday that laid the groundwork for Noor’s April 1 trial, ranging from how a jury will be picked to what information can be presented as evidence. In some instances, the judge left the door open for contested evidence to be revisited at trial pending witness testimony.
Quaintance ruled that prosecutors could not use Noor’s “prior acts” as a police officer against him, including a 2017 incident in which he pointed a gun at a motorist during a traffic stop and accusations that he occasionally refused to respond to police calls while he was in training.
The evidence is “not relevant,” the judge said, adding that its value is outweighed by the “unfair prejudice” it could impose.
Quaintance also ruled that Noor’s refusal to speak with a state investigator about the shooting can only be used as evidence by prosecutors if he takes the witness stand. The defense had filed a motion to bar it from trial, but prosecutors argued that state law and U.S. Supreme Court precedent allow using it to impeach a defendant who testifies.
“It seems to me that the right not to incriminate oneself is a pretty seminal constitutional right,” Quaintance said.
The defense has not given any indication about whether Noor will testify, although it has signaled that he acted in self-defense.
In a similar ruling, Quaintance said that assistant Hennepin County attorneys Amy Sweasy and Patrick Lofton can use Noor’s 2015 pre-employment psychological exam only if he testifies at trial and the exam becomes relevant.
“The [exam] is controversial, and I find that it would not be more probative than prejudicial in this case,” she said.
Noor was a passenger in a squad car on July 15, 2017, when he and his partner Matthew Harrity responded to Damond’s 911 call about a possible rape behind her south Minneapolis home. Noor fired through the driver’s side window about 11:40 p.m., killing Damond and bringing worldwide attention to the case, including from Damond’s native Australia.
Noor was charged in Hennepin County District Court with second-degree murder with intent, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Noor’s father and supporters were in attendance Friday, along with Damond’s fiancé, Don Damond, and his supporters.
The judge’s other rulings include:
• All charges against Noor will be tried at once instead of separating the second-degree murder count into another case as the defense had requested.
• Potential jurors will be questioned in a group setting during jury selection and not alone in the courtroom as requested by the prosecution.
• A defense motion to play a 15-minute instructional video about implicit bias to jurors was denied.
Lofton argued the video included “objectionable imagery” such as racial segregation in the south and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II that were irrelevant to the case.
Quaintance said she would allow attorneys to ask jurors about implicit bias during jury selection and would consider addressing it in her instructions to the jury.
• The prosecution will be allowed to present evidence that before Damond’s call, someone else had called police to request a welfare check on a woman on the street who possibly had dementia. Noor and Harrity responded to the call but did not find the woman.
Prosecutors wrote in a previous court filing that the officers responded to Damond’s call in the same vicinity about an hour-and-a-half later. Noor should have considered the previous call in relation to Damond’s call, the prosecution argued.
“He should have known this person approaching his vehicle was likely a 911 caller or a woman in need of help,” the prosecution wrote. “It was his duty to take the seconds it would have required to assess the person approaching his vehicle, or at the very least, issue commands or ask questions before acting with deadly force.”
“It is far more relevant than any of this other evidence as to Mr. Noor’s state of mind,” Quaintance said.
• No one else can testify about Noor’s motive or state of mind at the time of the shooting. But evidence about it could come into play if Noor testifies.
Quaintance did not immediately rule on some key issues:
• She said she would later decide whether defense use-of-force expert, Emanuel Kapelsohn, can testify. Prosecutors had sought to limit or exclude Kapelsohn’s testimony. Quaintance proposed possibly allowing both sides to vet each other’s experts in cross-examination at the start of jury selection.
• She did not rule on a prosecution motion to admit a 3-D scan and reconstruction of the crime scene created by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, saying she needed more information about it.