Arguing that intent was involved, prosecutors are seeking to add a second-degree murder count to charges already faced by the former Minneapolis police officer who fatally shot Justine Damond Ruszczyk in July 2017.
In a motion to amend the complaint against Mohamed Noor, prosecutors argued this week that evidence shows Noor "intended to kill Ms. Ruszczyk when he aimed and fired at her," thus justifying a second-degree murder charge. It is unclear when a judge will rule on their request.
Noor, who was fired in March, hasn't entered a plea on previously leveled charges of third-degree murder and manslaughter, but his attorneys indicated that he will plead not guilty by reason of self-defense. He remains free on bail.
An appeal of his firing is on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case.
Prosecutors based their argument for the upgraded charge, in part, on the fact that Noor shot at Ruszczyk from close range and with "tragic accuracy," firing the fatal bullet past his partner, Matthew Harrity, and "through the narrow space of the open driver's window," according to the filing.
"As a trained officer, the defendant was fully aware that such a shot would kill Ms. Ruszczyk, a result he clearly intended," said the filing, lodged Thursday in Hennepin County District Court.
A message left for Noor's attorney, Tom Plunkett, wasn't immediately returned Friday.
In a separate filing, prosecutors said they intend to question prospective jurors about police use of force, race and "other potentially sensitive issues." Noor's attorneys are also weighing whether to show would-be jurors a video about implicit bias and discrimination.
The county attorney's office declined to comment Friday, citing a gag order in the case, and a spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department said he could not discuss pending litigation.
Noor is the first police officer statewide in recent memory to be charged with murder for an on-duty killing. A trial date has been set for April 1, 2019.
Damond, whose legal last name was Ruszczyk but who went by Justine Damond professionally, had called 911 to report a possible rape in the alley behind her southwest Minneapolis home on July 15, 2017. Prosecutors say she was shot as she approached the police SUV's driver-side window, with Noor firing past his partner, who was behind the wheel.
Among lawyers, caution
This week's filing was met with raised eyebrows in local legal circles.
Mendota Heights attorney Dave Ayers questioned the "troubling" timing and severity of the charges. He theorized that prosecutors were "emboldened" by Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance's recent decision to allow the case to proceed, while agreeing to exclude certain evidence that the defense had sought to present at trial.
"The only reason I can think of is they want to set an example, and they're using Mr. Noor as an opportunity in an attempt to do that," said Ayers, who has also represented officers accused of misconduct in his 40-year career.
Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights advocate, found the new charges "scary," saying that Noor, who is of East African descent, is being held to a different standard than other officers involved in past police shootings.
"Seems like the county attorney is more interested in making money for the family, instead of providing justice for the city of Minneapolis," Edwards said. "He is letting folks know that a person who's involved in the death of a Caucasian will have no protection under the color of law."
Local defense attorney Tom Gallagher said that prosecutors must now meet a higher legal standard to produce a criminal conviction, but that he doesn't expect the defense to waver from its self-defense claim. He added that prosecutors take pains not to tip their hand about potential evidence until trial.
"They have information that I don't have, that we don't have," said Gallagher. "They're going to hide it before the trial."
When reached for comment Friday, Harrity's attorney, Fred Bruno, declined to comment.
Noor is also the subject of two lawsuits wending their way through federal court. Damond's father filed a $50 million suit earlier this year accusing Noor and Harrity of conspiring to cover up evidence of the shooting by failing to turn on their body cameras, and by later hiding behind a "blue wall of silence" as the case was being investigated. A judge granted a motion to delay that case until after the criminal trial.
A settlement conference in Noor's other pending lawsuit has been rescheduled for Tuesday.