Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor received a new sentence Thursday of nearly five years in prison in the 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, meaning he could be released from prison next summer instead of in several years under a previous sentence vacated by the state's high court.
Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance sentenced Noor to 4 ¾ years in prison for second-degree manslaughter after the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned a third-degree murder conviction against him for killing Damond, who had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her south Minneapolis home.
The state Supreme Court decision vacated a prison term of 12 ½ years that Noor, who turned 36 Wednesday, had been serving.
In sentencing Noor on Thursday to the high end of state sentencing guidelines, Quaintance reminded him that he fired his gun across his partner's nose as they sat in a squad car, endangering a teenage bicyclist nearby and residents enjoying a summer evening.
"These factors of endangering the public make your crime of manslaughter appropriate for a high-end sentence," said Quaintance, who also brought up broader questions of police accountability and the unrelated killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020.
"What has changed? What will change so that this does not happen again? How does a department address officer safety without jeopardizing public safety? The jurors and the people of Minneapolis need and deserve answers," Quaintance said. "… Since we last met, another person has died at the hands of police after two other rookies responded together in a squad to a low-risk situation which escalated. The community exploded, another police officer has been on trial for murder."
Noor is eligible for release from prison on June 27, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Defendants in Minnesota are eligible for supervised release after serving two-thirds of their sentences. Noor has served 29 ½ months since he entered prison in May 2019, and must serve another 8 ½ months before he is eligible. Under his first sentence, Noor would have had to serve about six more years before becoming eligible.
Noor's attorneys, Thomas Plunkett and Peter Wold, asked Quaintance to credit Noor for time served and to release him from prison immediately. They declined to comment after the sentencing.
The Hennepin County Attorney's Office had asked Quaintance for 57 months, or, 4 ¾ years.
"Our office is pleased with Judge Kathryn L. Quaintance's decision to sentence Mr. Noor to the statutory maximum of 57 months in prison," Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a written statement afterward. "Given the circumstances, we feel it is the most just resolution. We hope the family and loved ones of Justine Ruszczyk are able to finally heal."
Noor's father, Mohamed Abass, left the courthouse in anger.
"This is the worst judge in Minnesota," Abass said, adding that he felt race was a factor in his son's new sentence. "This judge hates Somali community."
Echoing the sentiments of some of the several Somali community members in attendance, Abass said he felt his son had been treated unfairly because he is Somali. Noor was the first officer in modern Minnesota history to be convicted of killing a civilian on the job. Some critics had noted that Noor's case involved a white victim, and that before ex-Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin's murder conviction this year for killing Floyd, white officers historically haven't been charged in the killings of Black men.
Jurors convicted Noor in April 2019 of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. His attorneys appealed the murder count, which was upheld in February by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. They then asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to review that decision. The high court agreed with Noor's attorneys that because of how the statute is written, the murder count cannot apply when a defendant's actions are directed at a specific person.
Second-degree manslaughter is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but state sentencing guidelines recommend a term between about 3 ⅓ and 4 ¾ years for defendants with no criminal history, such as Noor. The presumptive term is four years, according to the guidelines.
Before Quaintance announced the sentence, Assistant Hennepin County Attorneys Amy Sweasy and Patrick Lofton read victim-impact statements from Damond's father, John Ruszczyk; mother, Maryan Heffernan; brother, Jason Ruszczyk; and sister-in-law, Katarina Ruszczyk. They watched the proceeding from Australia, where Damond was raised. The family sought the maximum for Noor.
"We should expect complete accountability from our public institutions and their staff," the parents' statement said.
The longest sentence would send a message to police "that we require respect for their badges," the parents said. "We will be outraged if the court is unwilling to respect the will of the people and demand that justice be heard, be seen and be done."
"There are no lessons to learn if he continues to have his ego stroked by the culture of police in this state that continue to live under the protection of the blue wall of silence, and a culture of killing first and refusing to ask questions later," said Katarina Ruszczyk. "The truth is there is a problem with fear in the Minneapolis police, a culture of macho protectionism of their own, rather than protecting the people they are supposed to serve."
Damond's fiancé, Don Damond, appeared via Zoom and said the state Supreme Court's decision "does not diminish the truth which was uncovered during the trial. The truth is that Justine should be alive."
Don Damond said his comments should not be construed to mean he wasn't still grieving. "I still cry so often," he said. "I miss her so deeply. I will always love her and I am deeply guided by her in my following statement."
He said Damond "lived a life of love, she modeled a life of joy for all and she stood for forgiveness."
"Given her example, I want you to know that I forgive you, Mohamed," he said. "All I ask is that you use this experience to do good for other people. Be the example of how to transform beyond adversity. Be an example of honesty and contrition. This is what Justine would want."
Noor, dressed in a black suit, leaned forward in his chair and intently watched Don Damond on a large TV screen. Noor's father and several supporters sat behind him in the courtroom gallery.
In asking for the 57-month sentence, Sweasy called the circumstances of Noor's conviction unique.
"By every measure … this is worse than typical for a second-degree manslaughter case," Sweasy said, adding that Noor's police badge was a social contract to protect and prevent harm.
Plunkett began his appeal to Quaintance by admitting his client was "culpably negligent" but also shared similarities with Damond by wanting to help others. He asked Quaintance to sentence Noor to the low end of the guidelines, about 3 ⅓ years, and to release him.
"From the earliest moments of this case there has been tremendous focus on who Ms. Ruszczyk was — an unfailing kindness to animals … and to all people — all of it very true and adding to the depth of this tragedy," Plunkett said. "Another aspect of the tragedy of this case is the similar goodness that adheres in Mr. Noor. Both of these people took a similar and profound interest in those around them. They wanted to make the world a better place for others."
Plunkett said Noor was young and overreacted.
"He was operating with the mistaken belief that he needed to protect his partner," Plunkett said, adding that Noor believed a career as a police officer would bridge the gap between police, the justice system and the Somali community.
In prison, he said, Noor was an award-winning inmate for his commitment and respect to others. Noor addressed the court briefly before he was sentenced.
"I just want to say that I'm deeply grateful for Mr. Damond's forgiveness," Noor said, "I'm deeply sorry for the pain that I've caused that family, and I will take [Don Damond's] advice and be a unifier."
Quaintance told Noor she wasn't surprised he has been a model prisoner but that contrary to his attorneys' assertions, it wasn't grounds for leniency.
Noor originally served his time in administrative segregation at Oak Park Heights prison in Minnesota, but was transferred on July 11, 2019, to facility in North Dakota for his own safety.
Staff writer Libor Jany contributed to this report.