Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance remained skeptical Friday that the media and public should be allowed to watch key video evidence in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor.
In a hearing, Quaintance said the video, captured by police body cameras, shows officer behavior immediately after the July 2017 shooting that she believes will be key to arguments for attorneys on both sides throughout the trial. But the video also shows the victim, Justine Ruszczyk Damond, taking her final breaths with her clothing partly torn off, said the judge. "I don't know who would want to watch it unless it's somebody who wants to watch snuff films," Quaintance said. "It's shocking. And frankly, the adamance of wanting access to it is shocking."
The hearing came in response to a coalition of Minnesota news outlets filing a motion in the trial earlier this week, arguing that Quaintance's plan to prevent reporters and public observers in the courtroom from seeing what's on the video violates the First Amendment and common-law rights to access at open trials.
Leita Walker, the attorney representing eight media organizations, including the Star Tribune, said it's of great importance for reporters to see the footage and watch how the jurors and attorneys in the case react to it. While the jury will decide the fate of Noor, "the public gets to be the arbiter of whether the courts and the jury did it right" and whether the existing law is sufficient based on the outcome, said Walker.
Walker said courtrooms across the country frequently show graphic evidence in criminal trials, citing the case of a shooter who killed 12 people in a Colorado movie theater. In that case, prosecutors attempted to shield the public from seeing graphic photographs, but the judge ruled the public's right to view evidence outweighed the right to privacy.
"No other court that we have found ever has done what you're proposing," she said.
Quaintance did not issue a decision but said she would do so quickly, as opening statements are expected to begin early next week.
Quaintance said her restrictions on the video are not meant to keep anything from the public but to prevent a group of "strangers" from seeing Damond partly unclothed after lifesaving procedures and in the final moments of her life. She said the audio, transcripts and witness testimony will tell the story what happened that night.
"I'm not sure the public even has an interest in that video — a legitimate interest," she said.
Walker said seeing the video must be important or the court would not need to show it to the jury. It's the job of journalists to view evidence and decide what parts are of interest to the public, Walker said.
"That presumes the media is a proxy for the public," said Quaintance.
"I'm a true believer, your honor," replied Walker.
Friday afternoon, Noor's attorneys filed a motion objecting to Quaintance's restrictions on who sees the video, alleging it's unfair to Noor. "The issue of access to information has been ongoing in this case and Mr. Noor has consistently objected to this practice by the Court," wrote the attorneys.
Prosecutors did not offer an opinion before the hearing, but in court Friday they expressed support for restricting the video. Prosecutor Amy Sweasy said the media's reasoning for showing the video to reporters "feels a little bit like entertainment," and it's her job to speak for Damond and her family.
Quaintance also signaled she may prevent a courtroom sketch artist from drawing jurors without permission, saying she worried about people outside the courtroom trying to influence them.
Walker said these limits constitute prior restraint without a compelling reason. They also would not be effective, said Walker, because others in the courtroom could still draw jurors or take notes that could identify them.
"The jurors are extremely concerned about their anonymity," the judge said.
"Who they are matters," said Walker. "The public cares very much about how this case comes out, and that's why it matters."