It’s disappointing that an experienced public servant and prosecutor would make the kind of mistake that Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman committed when he recently blamed state investigators for the delay in a decision regarding the police shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond in July.
Freeman was at a union holiday reception this month when several activists with the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar asked him why it was taking so long to decide whether to charge officer Mohamed Noor for the shooting that occurred when Damond called police that summer night, thinking she’d heard criminal activity outside her Minneapolis home.
The standard, almost reflexive answer for prosecutors in such a situation is to say they can’t discuss the case. But Freeman chose to engage, and in doing so shied away from taking any responsibility for the delay. “It’s not my fault,” he can be heard saying on the video, which was recorded surreptitiously. “So if it isn’t my fault, who didn’t do their job? It’s called investigators, and they don’t work for me. And they haven’t done their job.” State Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigators had been working on the case for months.
With some 20 years under his belt as county prosecutor, Freeman should have known better than to discuss the workings of an active case. It was a troubling lapse of professional ethics. Worse was casting doubt on investigators whose work is critical to the case. Freeman later apologized, but then went on to say his “other” mistake was not being aware he was secretly recorded. One can only hope that Freeman recognizes his professional responsibilities whether he is being recorded or not.
Understandably, news of Freeman’s comments did not sit well with Damond’s family. During a Thursday news conference, her father, John Ruszczyk, said the family is “deeply concerned about the possibility that the initial investigation was not done properly or with the greatest sense of integrity or completeness.”
Tom Heffelfinger, who twice served as Minnesota’s U.S. attorney and who also worked in the county prosecutor’s office, said Freeman erred in talking about the case. But he said that even though Freeman betrayed his frustration, his remarks should not affect the case itself.
“If the evidence supports prosecution, nothing he said changes that,” Heffelfinger told an editorial writer. “If the evidence does not support prosecution, nothing he said would change that either.” Heffelfinger said Freeman was right to apologize promptly in public and privately to the commissioner of public safety and to the head of the BCA. “My guess is he has also called the agents to talk to them,” Heffelfinger said.
The choice before Freeman is not an easy one. Prosecuting a police officer for a civilian shooting or deciding not to pursue a case both are controversial options that will open his office to criticism. Weighing those options carefully before proceeding is understandable. Jeopardizing public trust in the outcome is not, whatever the frustration may be with the evidence or its lack.