The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the third-degree murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, meaning he will likely see about eight years shaved off his prison sentence.
The decision stunningly rejected a February ruling by the Minnesota Court of Appeals that upheld the murder conviction against Noor, who is serving a 12½-year term for fatally shooting Damond in 2017.
The court's decision upended a historic milestone — Noor was the first former officer in Minnesota to be convicted of murder for an on-duty killing. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty this year for murdering George Floyd, is the only other officer in the state to be convicted of murder.
The court's unanimous ruling written by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea focused on the mental state necessary for the legal standard of a "depraved mind," defined as a "generalized indifference to human life."
The state's highest court said such a state cannot exist when a defendant's conduct is aimed at a particular person. The ruling affirmed what Noor's lawyers have claimed since trial — that third-degree murder didn't apply because his actions were focused on a single person.
In Noor's case, the high court agreed. "The only reasonable inference that can be drawn from the circumstances proved is that appellant's conduct was directed with particularity at the person who was killed, and the evidence is therefore insufficient to sustain his conviction … for depraved-mind murder," Gildea wrote.
Jurors convicted Noor in 2019 of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for shooting Damond while responding to her 911 call about a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her home. Wednesday's decision vacates the murder conviction and sends Noor back to court to be resentenced on the manslaughter count. Several local lawyers and Noor's defense attorney Peter Wold said Noor is likely to receive about four years in prison on the lower count — the term recommended by state sentencing guidelines for defendants like Noor who have no criminal history.
Noor entered prison on May 2, 2019, and has since served 28 ½ months. Under state sentencing guidelines, prisoners must serve two-thirds of their sentence before they are eligible for supervised release. If Noor is resentenced to four years, he could be released in as soon as 3 ½ months.
Another of Noor's attorneys, Thomas Plunkett, issued a written statement saying "fairness has been delivered to a person who is devoted to his community."
Noor responded to the news by saying, "with hardship comes ease," Plunkett said, adding that the former officer "is so looking forward to hugging his son as soon as possible."
As to when Noor may be released, Plunkett said Wednesday afternoon that "Mohammed Noor will get out of prison when the judge says he will get of prison."
Damond's fiancé, Don Damond, issued a written statement saying he and his family were "deeply saddened" by the ruling.
"In many ways, this has felt like a double blow against justice," Damond said. "My hope and work since Justine's death has been to try to prevent a further loss of life at the hands of stressed and inadequately trained police officers.
"The Minneapolis Police Department has not made any meaningful progress towards transformation. And now Noor is not being held accountable for killing my fiancé, an innocent person who called police from our home to report a female in distress. I have lived with the tragic loss of Justine and none of this can hurt my heart more than it has been, but now it truly feels like there has been no justice for Justine."
Attorney Bob Bennett, who represented Damond's family in a civil suit against the city, said his office contacted her family in Australia, but that it was nighttime there and they did not immediately have a response to the development.
"The Supreme Court's spoken and did so unanimously, so it's something the family will have to accept," Bennett said. "They've been concerned about it … They don't have to be happy about it."
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office prosecuted Noor, issued a written statement noting that prosecutors will seek the maximum prison term — 10 years — when Noor is resentenced.
Noor will be sentenced by Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance. No date has been set.
"We are disappointed," Freeman said of the court's ruling. "However, we respect and acknowledge that the Minnesota Supreme Court is the final arbiter in this matter. Accordingly, we must and do accept this result."
'Directed with particularity'
According to state statute, third-degree murder applies when a defendant kills someone "by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind."
In February, a Court of Appeals panel voted 2-1 to uphold Noor's third-degree murder conviction.
In June, Plunkett asked the state Supreme Court to address two questions: Can a person be convicted of third-degree murder if the deadly act is aimed at a single person, and can the reckless nature of an act alone establish the necessary depraved mind-set?
On the first question, the court said no, so it didn't need to answer the second.
"The state fails to identify any circumstance proved that is consistent with the jury's verdict that would support a reasonable inference that Noor's conduct was indiscriminate or otherwise non-particularized," the court said. "We likewise are unable to do so."
The word "others" has led many attorneys to interpret that the statute applies when multiple people are endangered and someone is killed. Veteran attorneys have said it would apply, for instance, to someone shooting indiscriminately into a crowd.
Plunkett argued in his petition to the state Supreme Court that the depraved mind element wasn't fulfilled because Noor was carrying out his duties as an officer, acted in a split second and directed his actions at a specific person out of fear that his partner's life was in danger from an ambush. The Supreme Court agreed.
"We may very well agree that Noor's decision to shoot a deadly weapon simply because he was startled was disproportionate and unreasonable," Gildea wrote. "Noor's conduct is especially troubling given the trust that citizens should be able to place in our peace officers. But the tragic circumstances of this case do not change the fact that Noor's conduct was directed with particularity toward Ruszczyk."
The state Supreme Court's decision didn't surprise Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, or former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, who now works as a defense lawyer.
"[Noor] was negligent, that's for sure, but I don't think he did it with a depraved mind, which is the key element of murder three," Daly said.
Gaertner said it was unusual that Noor was charged with third-degree murder to begin with. Second-degree murder was later added to his case; jurors acquitted him of the count.
"For many years most people understood the statute to apply to conduct that was so reckless and not directed at any individual, so its use in a case like this was a bit out of the norm," Gaertner said. "The prosecution's choice to move forward on murder three was legitimate. There certainly was some room for argument. It's just that at the end of the day, creativity of criminal prosecution is rarely rewarded by the appeals court."
Prosecutors had argued at trial that Noor acted recklessly and with a depraved mind because he fired a gunshot across his partner's body in their squad car and out an open window at a shadow he had not identified. A teenager on a bicycle and residential homes were also in the line of fire, prosecutors had argued.
Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor Ted Sampsell-Jones said the state Supreme Court decision leaned heavily on precedent, laws written centuries ago. "Frankly, the Legislature should fix it," he said. "Our statutes are archaic."
Bennett said the state needs to revise the third-degree murder statute or introduce a new statute for crimes that don't meet the third-degree threshold but are more serious than manslaughter.
"It's a poorly worded statute," Bennett said. "Hopefully somebody will improve it."