A teenage bicyclist who witnessed the immediate moments after Justine Ruszczyk Damond was fatally shot testified Wednesday that he reflexively recorded the incident on his cellphone, despite a hazy recollection of what happened that night.
The witness, who lives in Minneapolis and was 16 at the time, filmed the scene before other first responders arrived, showing former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor and his partner, Matthew Harrity, leaning over Damond as she lay on a driveway in the moments after Noor shot her.
“Ma’am, stay with me,” Harrity is heard saying in the 29-second recording as he tries to revive Damond.
Noor stands up and briefly paces, before turning toward the teen.
“What’s happening, sir?” the teen asks.
“You can videotape — just back up,” Noor told the teen in the recording, which ends a few seconds later. It was the first time Noor’s voice has been heard on a recording since the trial began April 1.
The teen, now 17, proved to be a compelling witness in Noor’s murder trial, grabbing jurors’ attention amid recent days mired in testimony about police policy and apparent investigative missteps. But he was also saddled with inconsistencies that raised questions about the veracity of his observations.
“I’m gonna rip off the Band-Aid and ask you some awkward questions,” Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Patrick Lofton said near the start of the teen’s testimony.
Lofton asked if he had smoked marijuana on the day he witnessed the scene in the alley.
He had, the teen admitted, and had also consumed some whiskey — “Not that much, it was definitely less than four shots.”
Lofton previously shared the information with jurors in opening statements and said the teen was not a reliable witness.
Several days after the shooting, the teen told an interviewer at CornerHouse, a children’s advocacy center in Minneapolis that also conducts forensic interviews with children who have witnessed or experienced trauma, that he saw two officers outside of a police SUV in the moments before the shooting. That runs counter to the long-running narrative that Noor shot Damond from inside the cruiser’s front passenger seat.
Noor shot Damond about 11:40 p.m. on July 15, 2017, after he and Harrity responded to her 911 call about a possible sexual assault behind her south Minneapolis home. He shot through Harrity’s open driver’s side window, charging documents allege.
Attorneys for both sides singled out apparent discrepancies between the teen’s answers in the CornerHouse interview and what he told prosecutors Amy Sweasy and Lofton in a meeting last month.
“Did you have a good memory of what happened?” Lofton asked in court Wednesday.
“Not at all,” the teen said.
The teen testified that he had trouble remembering details, and he said he trusted the answers he provided in the CornerHouse interview more than information he recently shared with prosecutors.
He told investigators that the victim was wearing jeans and a tank top but later said she was wearing a summer dress. Damond was in her pajamas and barefoot.
The teen testified that he was riding to a friend’s house to drop off marijuana belonging to the friend on the night of the shooting. He said he had an earbud in one ear and put the other one in “to ease the nerves” when he spotted a police SUV after crossing the intersection of S. 51st and Xerxes avenues.
He told the court that he saw two officers outside of their squad, along with a woman in jeans and a tank top standing nearby holding a phone to her ear with one hand and the other hand raised in the air.
How close was she to the vehicle? Lofton asked.
“Not very close, but not very far,” he responded, saying it was between 7 and 10 feet.
The lighting was “good, really good,” he said, corroborating several witnesses’ testimony that the area was lit well enough to see faces and objects. The prosecution has zeroed in on lighting as a reason Noor should have acted more reasonably by identifying Damond before shooting.
The teen said that he ducked his head down and continued bicycling by until he heard a gunshot. The loud shot startled him, he said, and he immediately straddled his bicycle, walking it down the street as he began recording on his iPhone.
“I mean, it’s the day and age of phones,” he said. “It’s a cop shooting — gotta record it.”
He described seeing Harrity rushing to Damond, while Noor “paced around — was kind of seeing if anyone was around.”
Under questioning by Lofton, he said he did not hear a noise or Damond or police say anything before the gunshot. Defense attorneys have argued that a loud noise on the squad spooked Noor and Harrity and they feared they were being ambushed, prompting Noor to fire his weapon.
After returning to his house later that night, the teen said he sent the video to seven to 10 friends on Snapchat. He wasn’t contacted by state investigators until several days later, when “three all-black vans” pulled up to him as he walked out of his home, he said. At first, he was leery.
“Me knowing what went down, I didn’t immediately trust authoritative figures,” he testified, adding that he later agreed to speak to authorities.
The footage later surfaced on Facebook, the defense said.
During his cross-examination, defense attorney Thomas Plunkett asked the teenager to explain his discrepancies.
“I currently don’t remember most of that situation — I tried to get it out of my head as fast as possible after that [CornerHouse] interview,” he said.
In the nearly two years since Damond’s death, authorities have failed to identify the source of the noise that led the Australian woman to call 911 before she was shot, an investigator with the county attorney’s office testified Wednesday afternoon.
“When I first learned of the case, there were some questions,” said the investigator, Nancy Dunlap, who homed in on the sound of a woman screaming that aroused Damond’s suspicions that a sexual assault was occurring behind her Fulton neighborhood home. She felt it was important because “this person could be a witness to what happened,” Dunlap said.
“Were the BCA (state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension) and the MPD (Minneapolis Police Department) looking for this woman?” asked prosecutor Patrick Lofton.
“No, they were not,” Dunlap said.
The veteran investigator joined the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office from a 30-year career with Minneapolis police. During her time as an officer, she investigated at three separate officer-involved shootings.
Dunlap testified that she also went door-to-door to ask Damond’s neighbors whether they had dogs, whose barking and whining might explain the noises that Damond heard.
In preparing the case, Dunlap testified that that she pored through hundreds of phone records, witness statements, scanner radio transmissions, surveillance videos and body-worn camera footage. She also reviewed all calls for service, both for the 5th Precinct and citywide, focusing on robberies, assaults and any calls “that could generate any type of noise.”
Recognizing that sometimes victims of sexual assault don’t report the crimes to police, Dunlap testified that she also checked in with officials at Hennepin County Medical Center about whether any recent cases fit that description. She was told that none did.
One of the calls that caught her attention was one involving a potentially mentally unstable woman was spotted wandering around the area earlier that night. The episode was described in detail on Wednesday morning by a woman who lived in the neighborhood and who called police three times to report the other woman’s erratic behavior.
The chronology shown to jurors showed that about 30 minutes after the last of those calls, Noor and Harrity “self-assigned themselves” to the call, while they were in the area of 48th and Xerxes avenues S., according to their squad’s GPS system.
After driving through the area and asking dispatchers about the 911 caller’s whereabouts, the officers declared the call “Code 4,” meaning that they hadn’t found the woman. After driving back to precinct headquarters for dinner, they went back on duty at 11:12 p.m., Dunlap testified. About 15 minutes later, Damond called 911 for the first time, to report that she had heard “sex sounds” and the voice of a woman apparently in distress in the alley behind her home.
Damond would call back about seven minutes and 40 seconds later, at 11:35 p.m., to check on the responding squads’ status.
Two minutes after that, Noor indicated on his in-squad computer that the officers had arrived to the scene; their GPS system showed them driving through the alley about eight miles an hour, before declaring the scene “Code 4” before they reached the end of the alley.
Dunlap testified that based on her best guess, the fatal shot was fired in a 14-second interval between 11:40:15 and 11:40:29, when Harrity first turned on his body camera.
About 13 seconds after that, a teenage passerby began recording the scene on his cellphone.
Dunlap’s investigation showed that Noor and Harrity responded to 12 separate calls for service that night — including two related to the shooting — during their shift, ranging from a call involving an “emotionally-disturbed person” at a nearby senior living facility.
Noor, Dunlap testified, activated his body worn camera on half of those calls, while Harrity never turned his recording device on, until after Damond was shot.
The two officers had worked in the same squad together at least 35 times since Harrity moved to the precinct in December 2016; Noor was assigned there in May of that year.
Testimony resumes at 9:15 a.m. Thursday.