Whether former Minneapolis police Officer Mohamed Noor had a “depraved mind” when he fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond was the focus of questioning Wednesday in the appeal of his murder conviction.
Noor is challenging his third-degree murder conviction in Damond’s 2017 death. He became the first on-duty Minneapolis police officer convicted of murder after he shot Damond after responding to her call of a possible sexual assault behind her home. Noor, who was also convicted of manslaughter, is serving 12½ years in prison.
Third-degree murder is a charge generally reserved for defendants who supply drugs resulting in overdose deaths. The charge’s definition as applied to Noor is also rare: that he caused Damond’s death “by perpetuating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind.”
Noor’s attorney argued that the third-degree murder conviction should be overturned because Noor was acting within his legal right as an officer to use deadly force, the defense wrote, adding that the “depraved mind” element of the offense was not proved.
“There is insufficient evidence that Noor acted with a depraved mind because (1) he did not act with a mind bent on mischief but rather sought to fulfill his duties as a police officer and (2) he directed his actions at a particular person,” Noor’s attorneys argued in appellate briefs. Noor’s attorney Thomas Plunkett also argued Wednesday that errors pervaded the trial and third-degree murder doesn’t occur when actions are focused on a specific person.
Court of Appeals Judges Louise Dovre Bjorkman, Matthew Johnson and Michelle Larkin conducted an electronic appellate hearing via Zoom, and focused on the “depraved mind” element.
The appellate judges asked Plunkett and Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Jean Burdorf, the prosecutor arguing the appeal, how an earlier ruling in a snowmobiler’s murder conviction should affect their decision on Noor.
In 2018, snowmobiler Eric J. Coleman was sentenced to 12½ years in prison on a third-degree murder conviction in the death of 8-year-old Alan Geisenkoetter.
In a ruling now on appeal to the state Supreme Court, the appellate court found that a District Court gave faulty jury instructions, but the error didn’t merit a new trial for Coleman. He was convicted of driving his snowmobile at nearly 60 mph into the Geisenkoetter family as they set up their ice-fishing tent on Chisago Lake. Coleman had a blood alcohol content of 0.165 three hours after the incident, according to court records. Alan died five days later.
The jury in Coleman’s trial was told by a Chisago County judge that they could convict him of third-degree murder if they found he had acted recklessly and that he may have known that his actions could kill somebody.
That was wrong, the three-judge appellate panel said; the court should have told the jury that to convict Coleman it needed to find that he knew for a fact his actions could kill someone.
Larkin asked Plunkett if the Coleman decision was relevant to Noor’s case.
Plunkett said the Coleman ruling focused on recklessness. But Noor’s hinges on the definition of “depraved mind,” he said.
A depraved mind “is not a situation where somebody is acting in the blink of an eye” as Noor did when he perceived a threat at the squad window, Plunkett said.
The judges then posed the “depraved mind” question to Burdorf, who responded that it’s a “term of art” with two requirements that she cited as committing an “eminently dangerous act ... without regard for human life.”
Noor’s firing his gun across his partner at an unidentified silhouette in the window of the squad vehicle with a bystander-bicyclist nearby fits that definition, Burdorf said. But she added that the appellate judges should wait to rule on Noor’s case until after the state Supreme Court issues its rulings in the Coleman case.
Larkin, who is the chairwoman of the three-judge panel, said the court will rule in 90 days as required by law.
One year after Noor’s conviction, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody in May 2020.
Former officer Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for roughly nine minutes, faces second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in Floyd’s death. Last month Judge Peter Cahill threw out a third-degree murder charge, reasoning that such a charge applies when someone causes the death of another person while committing an act inherently dangerous to others. No one else was put at risk in the Floyd case, so the charge must be dismissed, he ruled, citing Minnesota Supreme Court precedents. Three other former officers face charges of aiding and abetting Chauvin.