Tense exchanges and an oblique accusation of “prosecutorial misconduct” interrupted jury selection Wednesday in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, whose attorney raised the possibility of filing a motion for a mistrial.
The clashes arose in the afternoon and required the presiding judge’s intervention at times. Attorneys questioned 20 prospective jurors by day’s end, sending most of them through to another round of questioning.
Noor, 33, is on trial for the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond on July 15, 2017. Noor was responding to Damond’s 911 call about a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her south Minneapolis home and shot her when he and his partner were apparently startled by a sound near their squad car. Damond was unarmed when she was killed.
Noor is charged with second-degree murder with intent, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Defense attorney Thomas Plunkett accused the prosecution, singling out assistant Hennepin County attorney Patrick Lofton in particular, of a “pattern” of inappropriate objections aimed at undermining his questioning of prospective jurors. Plunkett told Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance he was raising the issue to “establish the pattern for a future mistrial motion” if necessary.
“It’s a gamesmanship issue,” Plunkett said, adding that he believed it was beginning to become a “prosecutorial misconduct issue.”
Lofton defended his objection, noting that it was not Plunkett’s question but rather his phrasing that was objectionable because it was asking a prospective juror to speculate about the case.
It was during that exchange that Lofton briefly noted that the prosecution is disputing that there was a slap on the squad car Noor and his partner were riding in before Noor fired his weapon. Lofton did not elaborate.
According to the charges, Noor’s partner, Matthew Harrity, was in the driver’s seat at the time. Harrity said he heard a voice, a thump somewhere behind him on the squad car, and caught a glimpse of a person’s head and shoulders outside his open window before Noor fired. A search warrant affidavit filed early in the case said a woman had slapped the vehicle.
Prosecutors wrote in a March court filing and Lofton said at a Tuesday hearing that “without giving too much away,” there is a “hot” dispute about how Noor and Damond were “positioned” when the shooting occurred.
Plunkett spent most of Wednesday afternoon asking would-be jurors their views of his client’s guilt or innocence and whether they could reach a decision at trial without hearing from Noor. The defense hasn’t said whether it intends to put him on the witness stand — he hasn’t spoken to state investigators about the shooting.
The jurors were also polled on whether they could set aside any preconceived notions they may have formed based on previous news coverage of the case. No one was excused for knowledge of the case they got from media.
The two sides disagreed on whether to dismiss a woman, a retired administrative assistant, who said, “I believe so,” when asked whether she was confident that she could be objective.
Plunkett said that her responses suggested that she’d already made up her mind about the case, but the prosecution argued that any hesitation she may have shown on the stand was the result of being thrust into a “high-pressure” situation.
Quaintance agreed, saying that she could stay in the jury pool.
Another woman, who works for the Minneapolis Park Board, said that while she is well aware of the current national conversation surrounding police violence, she could keep an open mind about the case.
“I believe that I could sit and be unbiased and neutral,” she said.
But, Plunkett’s line of questioning with another young woman drew an objection from assistant Hennepin County attorney Amy Sweasy and earned a strong reprimand from Quaintance, who chided him that as “an older male attorney,” he was “intimidating” the prospective juror.
The woman said although she never met Damond, she identified with her because of their shared interests in community service and spiritual healing. She was dismissed from the jury pool after telling the court that it would be “very hard” for her to presume Noor’s innocence.
“There’s a pattern here, that you’re putting words in the mouths of certain prospective jurors that you may have made your mind up about,” Quaintance said.
A total of 15 prospective jurors — seven women and eight men — were asked to return at a later date for further questioning. They included: a 21-year-old male Minneapolis firefighter, a single mom of two who works, a young woman who said she was troubled by police use-of-force cases but could set aside her feelings at trial, and a black man whose father was murdered in 1996.
Five prospective jurors who were questioned in person were excused from the case, including a young man whose uncle had been shot in a robbery and who said he found it difficult to imagine a reason why anyone, including police and military personnel, should take someone’s life with gunfire.
Five other prospective jurors were excused after a review of their questionnaires.
Jury selection resumes Thursday morning with more individual in-person questioning and then large-group questioning. The original pool of 75 prospective jurors is down to 59.(Six were dismissed Tuesday.)