The former Minneapolis police officer convicted of killing Justine Ruszczyk Damond in 2017 should receive a new trial because the court violated his constitutional right to a public trial and prevented him from explaining his actions, his attorneys argued in his appeal.
Mohamed Noor’s attorneys, Thomas Plunkett and Peter Wold, filed the arguments Friday in appellate court, adding that two other reasons compel a new trial — there was insufficient evidence to convict Noor of third-degree murder, and the court wrongly allowed prosecutors to present two expert witnesses who provided similar testimony.
“This case arises from a perfect storm that resulted in a tragedy,” they wrote. “And one tragedy led to another when Mohamed Mohamed Noor was deprived of the opportunity to explain why that tragedy was not a crime.”
After a monthlong trial watched around the world, jurors convicted Noor, 34, last April of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for shooting Damond.
Noor was responding to Damond’s 911 call about a possible sexual assault behind her south Minneapolis home on July 15, 2017, when he shot the 40-year-old from the passenger seat of his police car.
His partner, Matthew Harrity, was in the driver’s seat and did not fire his weapon.
Noor’s attorneys argued that through decisions made by Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance, who was not named, the court violated Noor’s constitutional right to a public trial. Quaintance presided over the trial.
They argued: The court held an off-the-record scheduling conference on Sept. 14, 2018, that “evolved into a substantive discussion of pending motions,” “ordered and accepted” nonpublic exhibits early in the case when considering Noor’s motion to dismiss the charges, relied on letters from the public and “other materials” at his sentencing, and issued four orders sealing jurors’ names.
“In a case with intense public interest the district court habitually shut the door pervasively, persistently and improperly,” Noor’s defense wrote, adding that a different judge should preside over the new trial.
The Star Tribune and Hubbard Broadcasting filed motions in February challenging Quaintance’s sealing of the juror information. The matter is pending. They are the latest media challenges to orders made by Quaintance during trial, such as the decision to limit who could view body camera footage of the aftermath of the shooting. That decision was later reversed.
Noor’s team solicited testimony from Harrity and Noor at trial that they feared being ambushed, asking how national and local attacks on officers had influenced their state of mind and training.
Noor’s due-process rights were violated because Quaintance limited testimony from him and other witnesses about such threats and training, the defense wrote.
The judge prohibited Noor from testifying that threats of ambush had been discussed as part of the roll call meeting before his shift, they wrote.
“The rulings left the jury with Noor’s statement that he believed an officer ambush was unfolding without context for that perception, which was informed by his training and roll call,” the brief said.
Harrity and Noor testified at trial that they heard a “thump” or “loud bang,” respectively, on their vehicle before a figure appeared near Harrity’s open window. Noor testified that the figure, Damond, started to raise an arm, prompting him to fire his weapon.
As part of the due-process claim, Plunkett and Wold criticized Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman for turning the case into a “spectacle” when he was recorded in December 2017 telling activists that deciding whether to charge Noor “is the big present I want under the Christmas tree.”
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.
Some attorneys who were not involved in the case have likened a “depraved mind” murder to someone shooting into a moving train full of passengers.
“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 said.
They also argued that Quaintance wrongly allowed prosecutors to call two use-of-force expert witnesses who provided similar testimony and told jurors that Noor acted unreasonably.
“The district court abused its discretion by allowing the State to close its case-in-chief and rebuttal by presenting nearly identical testimony and ultimate opinions from two experts,” they wrote.
“The erroneous admission of this cumulative testimony was far from harmless.”
Prosecutors have 30 days to respond to the defense’s claims.