Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said Wednesday that he does not yet have enough evidence to file charges against a Minneapolis police officer in the shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, blaming investigators who “haven’t done their job.”
Freeman made the comments during a union event after being confronted by activists, who recorded the interaction. They asked Freeman why it has taken so long for him to decide if Officer Mohamed Noor was justified in shooting and killing Damond on July 15.
“Fair question. I’ve got to have the evidence, and I don’t have it yet,” Freeman responded. “Let me just say it’s not my fault. So if it isn’t my fault, who didn’t do their job? Investigators. They don’t work for me. They haven’t done their job.”
Freeman said coming to a decision “is the big present I want under the Christmas tree.”
Damond’s family was “deeply distressed and unhappy” following Freeman’s remarks, said Bob Bennett, the attorney representing the family.
“We expected a quality investigation that would be fair, complete and accurate, and apparently that hasn’t happened,” Bennett said.
Noor’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, said he was concerned by Freeman’s comments.
“No lawyer wants their client placed under a Christmas tree as a present to a vocal segment of the community,” Plunkett said. “That said, this case is about an officer that followed procedure and training. This led to the death of a very fine person, which is a horrible tragedy but not a crime.
“Investigators gather evidence, they don’t create it. That is their job. I am concerned by any supplemental investigation — especially if it is directly overseen and influenced by the county attorney.”
The video was made by union members who were also members of the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar, a group formed after the November 2015 death of Jamar Clark, who was shot and killed during a struggle with two Minneapolis police officers. Sam Sanchez, who was part of the group that made the video, said Freeman was not told he was being recorded. The group posted the video on its Facebook page Wednesday night.
Asked how investigators failed to do their job, Freeman responded via e-mail: “Good questions and I respect you asking them. We are working very hard to complete our review of the facts provide[d] in the investigation to date and to assist in helping to complete the investigation.”
Noor shot and killed Damond on July 15, after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault outside of her south Minneapolis home. Noor and his partner, Matthew Harrity, responded to the call. When she approached the squad, Noor, from the passenger’s seat, shot across Harrity in the driver’s seat, striking Damond in the abdomen.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which investigated the shooting, turned over the case to Freeman for charging consideration on Sept. 12.
Freeman has said repeatedly he would make a decision on whether to charge Noor by the end of the year.
But during a news conference Tuesday, he softened that stance, saying it was now “the goal” to make a decision by the end of the year. Otherwise, he has remained publicly silent on the case.
In the six-minute video, the activists approach Freeman at the Wednesday event. After Freeman said he did not have the evidence to charge Noor, blaming investigators for not doing their job, one man said, “I don’t understand why this seems to be such a hard thing.”
“Fair question,” Freeman responded. “I have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, the moment he shot the gun he feared for his life, and he used force because he thought he was going to be killed. But he won’t answer my questions. … I can’t talk to her because she’s gone, and the other cop just gave us [expletive]. So guess what, I’ve gotta figure out angles of the shot, gun residues, reckless use of force experts. …
“But if you look at this, here’s a nice lady who hears something bad outside, she calls the cops, they don’t come, she calls again, they drive up in her alley, and she comes out in her jammies and she’s killed by a cop. Sounds easy doesn’t it? Can I prove that the cop shot her? I could have done that the first day.”
Freeman told the group that before he charges anyone, he has to have “sufficient admissible evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“Would you like me to charge your friend just because I think maybe he did it, and let a jury decide?” Freeman said on the videotape. “I’m ruining his life by doing [that].”
“That’s just how the justice system works,” one of the activists responded. “You do it to innocent poor people all the time Mike, so why is it so difficult when it’s a police officer?”
“I have to follow the law,” Freeman said. “We’ll get it done, OK?”
Freeman then thanked the group, but said he would continue to seek more evidence.
“I’m not going to make it worse by just doing a knee-jerk charge and seeing what the jury decides, no no,” he said. “I have to know what happened before I can charge. And that’s when I’m doing my job. And thanks for having some patience. Trust me, nobody wants it done more than me. That’s the big present I want under the Christmas tree.”
BCA spokeswoman Jill Oliveira declined to address Freeman’s comments, saying only that the agency “continues to work with that office regarding this ongoing investigation. … [T]he collaboration between prosecutors and investigators as a case file is reviewed under the statutes is a typical part of the review process.”
Sanchez, one of the activists who made the video, said several politicians attend the annual union holiday event to seek support for their campaigns. Freeman is up for re-election next year.
“If he needs our help, he needs to be held accountable,” Sanchez said.