There are no new witnesses or new evidence; only two people know firsthand what happened, and only one of them has spoken to investigators.
And yet, months after he received the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s investigation into the July 15 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond by a Minneapolis police officer, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has not made a decision on whether that officer, Mohamed Noor, will face criminal charges.
Freeman continues to insist that he will make a decision before the end of the year, and Minneapolis’ new chief of police said he’s bracing for backlash no matter what Freeman decides.
“There’s going to be a reaction from certain segments in the community regardless of what decision is made,” said Chief Medaria Arradondo.
The death of Damond, an Australia native who was shot in the alley behind her home after she called 911 to report a possible assault, reverberated across the city and around the world. It led to the firing of Minneapolis’ first female police chief, Janeé Harteau, and raised new questions about police training and the use of force.
For those who knew Damond, the wait for answers has been too long.
“Our group believes justice delayed is justice denied,” said Todd Schuman, a member of Justice for Justine. “We’re absolutely outraged that it’s taken so long.”
The BCA turned over its investigation to Freeman on Sept. 12. The attorney representing Damond’s family, Bob Bennett, believes a decision should have been made long ago. He blames the BCA for bungling the investigation and believes another agency was brought in to help.
“My guess is that there had to be significant reinvestigation,” he said.
Freeman’s office declined to comment, including whether another agency was brought in to investigate.
BCA spokeswoman Jill Oliveira said Hennepin County deputies already assigned to the prosecutor’s office helped with the investigation.
“With any complex case like this one, there is often a need to conduct interviews later in the investigation,” she said.
Still no statement from Noor
Noor has repeatedly declined to give a statement to investigators about the shooting. His attorney, Thomas Plunkett, said the investigation’s time frame does not seem unusual.
There were rumors that Noor had left Minnesota, but County attorney spokesman Chuck Laszewski said that Plunkett made sure investigators knew Noor was still here.
“Officer Noor, as is his constitutional right, has declined to be interviewed by investigators about the shooting, and Mr. Plunkett has made it very clear he won’t allow him to be interviewed,” Laszewski said.
Freeman has had the Noor case for 89 days, nearly twice as long as it took him to decide not to file charges in the shooting death of Jamar Clark, Hennepin County’s other recent high-profile officer-involved shooting.
It took Ramsey County prosecutor John Choi 49 days after getting the case from the BCA to announce he was filing manslaughter charges against former St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of Philando Castile. Yanez was later acquitted.
It’s not a surprise Freeman has taken so long to decide, said Susan Gaertner, a former Ramsey County attorney, because Minnesota’s law can make it difficult to prove officer shooting cases to a jury.
“There’s no question that these kinds of cases are among the most difficult that a prosecutor will have to examine,” said Gaertner.
Criminal defense attorney Marsh Halberg said the case has parallels to Yanez’s manslaughter charge.
To prove that case, prosecutors had to meet the test of Minnesota’s statute and convince jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that Yanez took an unreasonable risk when he killed Castile. Jurors acquitted Yanez, later saying they found it reasonable that the officer feared for his life.
In Noor’s case, he and his partner were driving down a dark alley responding to a domestic assault call. Damond had called 911 after hearing a woman scream.
“If I’m the defense, I’m arguing that domestics are one of the most dangerous situations officers can go into,” said Halberg, who was also a prosecutor for 25 years.
A search warrant revealed that the officer heard a slap on their squad car. According to the BCA, Noor fired a single shot across his partner, Matthew Harrity, and struck Damond in the stomach, killing her.
Halberg said prosecutors would have to show that an objectively reasonable officer would not have made the same decision.
“You think you might be in an ambush and you fire. In milliseconds you have to make a quick decision,” Halberg said. “This is a very difficult case for the government.”
Bennett, the attorney representing Damond’s family, said it’s clear that Noor’s actions were not reasonable.
“If it’s as simple enough to say I was afraid, therefore I shot, there would be a lot more police shootings,” he said.
‘It’s tough to wait’
Bennett said Damond’s family is still struggling to cope with her death, made more difficult as they wait for Freeman’s decision.
“It’s tough to wait, but it’s necessary,” he said.
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Minnesota chapter, acknowledged the Somali community will be angered if Noor is charged.
But that reaction won’t come because of Noor’s race, Hussein said, but rather because his actions could be taken to represent likely actions of all Somalis.
“Our entire community is going to be dragged into this mess,” Hussein said.
The head of the Minnesota chapter of the NAACP, Jason Sole, said he’s heard from members who would be angry if Noor were charged because he’s black.
But Sole said he expects prosecutors to file charges against the officer.
“If it happens to be a black guy, so be it,” he said.
Failing to charge Noor, said Schuman of Justice for Justine, would be “unacceptable.”
Anything less than manslaughter, he said, “would not be acceptable. Nor should it be acceptable to anyone.”