The Star Tribune on Tuesday filed a motion challenging a judge’s decision to keep sealed the names of jurors nine months after they convicted former Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor of murder in the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
The motion asking the court to release the names, prospective juror list, juror questionnaires and other related information comes after Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance issued an order in late January sealing the information for a fourth time.
“Yet nine months later, the identities of the men and women who weighed the evidence surrounding one of the most controversial officer-involved shootings this State has ever seen — in one of the most important trials this State has ever seen — remains a secret,” said the Star Tribune motion filed by attorney Leita Walker. “Because the trial is over, a release of jurors’ names cannot possibly threaten Mr. Noor’s right to a fair trial. Nor has any evidence been cited to show that — months after they rendered their verdict — jurors’ safety is somehow at jeopardy.”
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 a police squad car.
Quaintance first sealed the juror information last May and issued similar orders in July, October and this January.
The judge has repeatedly cited media interest in the case as a reason to seal the information to protect jurors from “unwanted publicity and harassment.” She has also cited Noor’s appeal, which is pending, as a reason to keep the information private.
“On November 30, 2019, the Star Tribune published a newspaper article questioning this Court’s continued sealing of the juror information,” Quaintance wrote in her January order. “The article includes quotes from a Star Tribune editor as well as a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, criticizing the actions taken by the Court to protect jurors’ identities following what was a very high profile trial covered by international media.”
Star Tribune Senior Managing Editor and Vice President Suki Dardarian, along with a local legal scholar and an attorney who attended part of Noor’s trial as an observer have questioned the strength of Quaintance’s arguments to keep the information sealed.
“In other words, the Court seems to be saying, juror names should be released only in cases that people do not care about — or only after people stop caring about them,” the Star Tribune motion said. “By this logic, the names of jurors in high-profile cases such [as] this one might never be released. No case law supports this sort of perpetual secrecy based solely on speculative concerns for juror privacy — and for good reason.”
The court’s “continued secrecy” regarding the juror information violates court rules, common law and the First Amendment, the Star Tribune motion said.
Making juror information public is also considered fundamental to a defendant’s constitutional right to a public trial.
The Minnesota Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in 1995, State v. Bowles, upholding the use of an anonymous jury that convicted shooter Shannon Bowles in the 1992 gang killing of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf. The court allowed the anonymity because of concerns about gang retaliation against jurors. A gang member had been killed leading up to the trial, presumably because he was thought to be a police informant, and some witnesses and their families had been relocated for their safety.
Quaintance has cited the Bowles decision in all of her orders. The Star Tribune’s motion challenged the relevancy of the Bowles decision in the Noor case, noting that it “made clear that anonymous juries are the exception, not the rule” and that it was designed to protect jurors from the defendant, not the press.
“Mr. Noor is not an organized crime figure and there is no reason to believe that any juror ever felt any threat of physical harm,” the motion said.
While Quaintance has vaguely cited the public’s ongoing interest in the Noor case as part of her concern, she has not cited explicit examples of threats to the jurors.
“Following the trial, the Court continued to receive letters and other correspondence from members of the public about its actions in nearly every aspect of the trial, including Defendant’s sentence,” Quaintance wrote in her January order. “The Star Tribune’s November 30th article exemplifies the interest the media still has in this trial.”
In an affidavit attached to the Star Tribune’s motion, Dardarian noted that in her nearly 40-year career in journalism at multiple newspapers across the country, juror information has been made public by the courts.
Dardarian said the Star Tribune is seeking access to the names for news gathering and reporting. She cited other high-profile cases in which the Star Tribune published interviews with jurors after the conclusion of a trial, including the 2019 conviction of former Minneapolis landlord Stephen Frenz, the 2017 acquittal of then-officer St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez in the killing of Philando Castile and the 2014 libel trial involving former Gov. Jesse Ventura.