Before becoming a judge, Kathryn Quaintance was a hard-nosed prosecutor who spent a decade trying some of Hennepin County’s most heinous murder, rape and child abuse cases.
That deep trial experience, coupled with a no-nonsense courtroom style, has come to define her reputation as a Hennepin County judge.
Now Quaintance, who has been on the bench for two decades, finds herself in the international spotlight as she presides over the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor.
He’s accused of murder in the July 2017 death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 40-year-old Australia native who had called 911 about a possible rape in the alley behind her south Minneapolis home.
Quaintance “runs a tight ship. You know what the rules are,” said defense attorney Marsh Halberg, who has faced her both as a prosecutor and a judge. “It’s real clear she doesn’t want to try this case twice. She is trying to control things as best she can.”
From tightly restricting courtroom decorum — no cellphones or chewing gum allowed — to querying jurors nearly every day on whether they’ve been contacted by outsiders about the trial, Quaintance has made it clear she won’t tolerate mistakes and distractions during the high-profile case.
But Quaintance, 63, isn’t strictly business. She’s known to step outside her courtroom to preside over Valentine’s Day courthouse weddings. She was so moved by a crime victim’s forgiveness that she encouraged a newspaper columnist to share her story.
“I always liked her. She was always fair,” said veteran defense attorney Earl Gray. “I think she is a reasonable judge. It’s nice to have a judge with a criminal law background because she understands what you are talking about.”
Following the law
Before opening statements in the Noor trial had even begun April 9, Quaintance drew criticism and court challenges from the media and activists for rulings that limited public access to the trial.
She decided to hold the trial in a smaller courtroom with a limited number of seats. And in an unprecedented move, she ruled that only jurors and lawyers could see autopsy photos and police body-camera footage, critical evidence that she wanted shielded from the public.
Only when challenged in court by a coalition of local media outlets, including the Star Tribune, did Quaintance reverse course and acknowledge she was bound by the First Amendment.
“The court, like the jury, must follow the law — even if I disagree with it,” she said.
But during an earlier hearing she didn’t hold back expressing her displeasure, questioning the public’s right to have full access to the trial and the media’s role as a proxy for the public.
“I don’t know who would want to watch it unless it’s somebody who wants to watch snuff films,” she said, referring to the footage showing Damond after she was shot.
Retired Hennepin County Judge Daniel Mabley, who handled the high-profile trial of Amy Senser on hit-and-run charges in 2012, said he believes Quaintance has tried “to protect the integrity of the trial and the process.” But he questioned her efforts to limit public presentation of evidence.
“I wouldn’t feel an obligation to protect people from seeing something disturbing,” Mabley said. “Even the victim’s family — they want to see the whole trial, too. I don’t think protecting them is a good reason.”
Quaintance’s presence loomed large during pretrial motions and through jury selection. But the judge has seemed to slip into the background during the past two and a half weeks of testimony.
One morning, she greeted jurors with a smile and a chuckle when one cracked a weather joke. Then she sat back and let prosecutors present their case, mostly uninterrupted.
Outside the jury’s presence, Quaintance has been more animated and direct as attorneys argued trial strategy and the admissibility of character evidence involving Noor.
“You can’t have it both ways. If you put his character in evidence, it’s fair game,” Quaintance told defense attorneys. “You know this. You’ve been practicing law a long time.”
Kathleen Blatz, retired chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, said Quaintance first caught her eye when Blatz served in the Legislature. The two of them connected as women balancing legal careers and families. Quaintance, who lives in Minneapolis, is divorced with two grown sons.
“I thought she was a person of courage and dignity,” Blatz said. “She was very confident and courageous, especially her focus on abused and neglected children. People can give it lip service. It’s another thing to prosecute a case and never lose sight of that.”
Born in Connecticut, Quaintance earned degrees from Smith College and Rutgers Law School amid stints acting on daytime TV.
She moved to Minnesota after taking a job with the Minneapolis law firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi, and in 1990 she joined the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, where she became known for handling numerous murder, rape and child abuse cases.
In a 1993 case, Quaintance prosecuted a Richfield man who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting four mentally disabled girls. She prosecuted a mother for allowing her boyfriend to rape her 10-year-old daughter.
“She was considered a go-to lawyer in the County Attorney’s Office in terms of handling important cases,” Mabley said. “For everyone who would oppose her in a courtroom, there would be an intimidation factor because of her skill and preparation and the way she could persuade jurors.”
Quaintance rose to supervisor of the criminal division in the County Attorney’s Office in 1998. Two years later, Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed her to the bench, where she built a reputation as a judge who did her homework and had little patience for attorneys who didn’t.
Quaintance, who has been reelected as judge three times, has split her two decades on the bench between juvenile and criminal court. She served as presiding judge in juvenile court from 2008 to 2013.
When she first took the bench, some defense attorneys moved to strike her because of her high-profile work as an assistant county attorney.
“They thought she would continue to be a prosecutor. She has proved them wrong,” Mabley said.
Chief Hennepin County Public Defender Mary Moriarty has known Quaintance for most of her career. “Very few on the bench have her experience in the courtroom trying criminal cases,” she said. “She is decisive as a judge, which trial lawyers appreciate.”
But several attorneys also said Quaintance’s style and comments in the courtroom can at times feel abrasive, chastising and a bit “holier than thou.”
Many described her as overly expressive, often notably rolling her eyes, sighing and furrowing her brow. And while attorneys generally agree that she’s fair, her reputation as a prosecutor has not faded in the minds of those who go before her.
In 2017, she sentenced Anthony Sawina to 39 years in prison for shooting at Somali-American men driving on their way to prayers, a substantially longer term than the 25 years requested by the prosecutor. She spent several minutes explaining her decision for a longer term, noting that the shooting had occurred in a highly populated area and that it was racially motivated.
In 2012, Quaintance presided over the sentencing of a teenager who stole and totaled a car belonging to a 76-year-old woman. In an emotional courtroom scene, the woman forgave the offending juvenile and refused compensation.
Quaintance was so moved that she reached out to Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin, whose ensuing coverage resulted in the woman receiving a new car and other gifts.
“We don’t always agree. but she was always fair with me,” said defense attorney J. Anthony Torres. “Overall, she is a good and decent person who is fair on the bench.”