The Hennepin County judge who sealed jury information in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor repeatedly expressed concerns at a hearing Wednesday about the media potentially asking jurors about their deliberations.
Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance, who presided over Noor’s trial, raised the issue at a hearing to address a motion filed by the Star Tribune to unseal jurors’ names, jury questionnaires and other related information that is typically made public after a trial ends.
Quaintance has issued five orders since Noor’s April 30, 2019 conviction to seal juror names and information, citing high interest in the case among the media and public, and the possible harassment of jurors. The fifth order was filed in April.
Quaintance asked attorney Leita Walker, who is representing the Star Tribune, whether she would concede that any media conversations with jurors would avoid talks about their deliberations.
No, Walker said.
“This kind of thing can interfere with the administration of justice,” Quaintance said.
The media’s interest, Walker said, is to understand the jurors and verdict.
“The press’ role is to be a watchdog on the administration of justice,” Walker said, adding that it was “vitally important to our democracy.”
Jurors convicted Noor of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for fatally shooting Justine Ruszczyk Damond. They acquitted him of second-degree murder.
Noor, 34, was responding to Damond’s 911 call about a possible sexual assault behind her south Minneapolis home on July 15, 2017, when he shot Damond, 40, from the passenger seat of his police SUV.
His partner, Matthew Harrity, was in the driver’s seat and did not fire his weapon.
Quaintance noted that Noor’s conviction is on appeal and called discussing jury deliberations a “very, very dangerous area.”
None of the jurors would return if a new trial is granted, Walker said.
Releasing juror names is considered fundamental to the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. In their appeal for a new case, Noor’s defense team accused the court of violating the constitutional right.
Noor’s attorneys and Hubbard Broadcasting, which owns KSTP-TV and KSTC-TV, joined the Star Tribune’s motion.
“It’s the cleansing light of having everything open that lends to the administration of justice,” one of Noor’s two attorneys, Thomas Plunkett, said at Wednesday’s hearing. “Mr. Noor is being cheated because he has had to have this matter heard publicly.”
Assistant Hennepin County attorneys Amy Sweasy and Patrick Lofton did not take a stance on the matter.
“This is the court’s decision,” Sweasy said.
Quaintance’s questioning Wednesday continued her adversarial posture with the media, which tangled with the judge from the start of Noor’s trial when she decided that some graphic police body camera footage of the scene would be played in court out of view of the media and public in the courtroom gallery.
A coalition of media partners challenged the judge’s plan, and she reversed her decision after a hearing.
In many of her orders sealing Noor’s jury information, Quaintance cited a landmark 1995 Minnesota Supreme Court decision upholding the use of an anonymous jury that convicted the shooter who killed Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf in 1992.
Walker challenged the application, noting that the cases differed greatly, and that jurors’ physical safety was an issue in the Haaf case because an alleged informant had been killed.
Case law across the country severely limits sealing jury information, Walker said.
Quaintance cited three federal court decisions about protecting jury information that involved “media concerns” and not threats to jurors’ physical safety.
Quaintance referenced the Star Tribune’s coverage of an unrelated murder case as an example of how jurors can glean information from news stories.
Walker noted that the judge could alert jurors before releasing their names and advise them not to speak with the media, adding that issuing an order to ban them from doing so would be an overreach.
The media’s interests lie in examining who the jurors are and determining whether they were truthful during jury selection, Walker said.
The media’s interest, Quaintance countered, appeared to focus on impeaching the jury’s verdict. That is, to examine whether jurors reached the correct conclusion.
“Nobody is trying to hide anything here, but I also don’t think there’s a right for the media to participate in jury selection … before or after,” Quaintance said. “Whether the media can dig up some facts after the fact is not appropriate.”
Prosecutors and defense attorneys vetted jurors during jury selection, the judge added.
“What the media is trying to do is give the public insight to how the criminal justice system works, to how juries work,” Walker said.
That can be done without delving into how jurors deliberated, Quaintance said.
“No it can’t,” Walker responded, reiterating that discussing deliberations would not be off the table.
Quaintance expressed broad concerns for the future of jury trials.
“We have increasing difficulty having jurors to serve at all, particularly in this type of case,” she said, adding that Noor’s jurors told the court they were concerned about being “hounded” during the trial.
Knowing that their names, jobs and personal information could be made public might scare away future jurors, the judge said.
Star Tribune Senior Managing Editor and Vice President Suki Dardarian previously said the newspaper and most media outlets don’t generally publish juror names.
The Star Tribune has published the names of jurors who voluntarily agreed to speak about their experiences.
Quaintance took the issue under advisement and said she wanted to resolve it as soon as possible.