The judge presiding over the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor is scheduled to hear arguments Friday afternoon from attorneys representing a coalition of media partners challenging her decision not to show some body-camera footage or autopsy photos to the public gallery at trial.
The defense, prosecution and Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance, who is presiding over the trial, hashed out details and legal arguments on the matter Thursday afternoon following a morning of jury selection. The defense said it did not want to attend Friday’s 3 p.m. hearing, which raised concerns about the potential impact on Noor’s constitutional rights to a public trial and due process. The defense attorneys’ posture was eventually overruled by Quaintance, who ordered their attendance.
“It is crucial to the case,” Quaintance said of the videos in question. “It is highly emotional and will be possibly one of the most dramatic moments of the trial. It is footage of a human being dying.”
Noor, 33, is on trial for fatally shooting Justine Ruszczyk Damond, 40, on July 15, 2017 after responding to her 911 call about a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her south Minneapolis home.
The judge had ruled at a March 29 motion hearing that body-camera footage that Noor and his partner, Matthew Harrity, recorded immediately after the shooting would be shown on a TV screen with its back turned to the public gallery. Two body-camera videos taken by other officers at the scene and autopsy photos would be displayed the same way, the judge ordered at the time, citing “privacy interest” and depictions of “the deceased in extremely compromising situations.”
Quaintance said Thursday that the videos show Noor giving CPR to Damond and Damond dying. Later in the day, she ruled in favor of the prosecution’s request to prohibit the admission of evidence and testimony about the long-term psychological effects of a police-involved shooting on an officer. The defense responded that it only intended to show how the shooting had affected Noor at the scene, writing in a court filing that Noor’s “immediate response” was of “an officer distraught by his actions.”
“He pled for [Damond’s] life and when asked by Officer Harrity, he performed CPR until the first responders arrived,” the filing read.
On Tuesday, a coalition of local print and broadcast news organizations filed their objection to the March 29 ruling, arguing that the First Amendment and common-law rights of access to criminal trials prohibit Quaintance from prohibiting public viewing of the body-camera footage.
Before the judge issued her mandate Thursday that the defense appear at Friday’s hearing, the attorneys debated the issue.
“We do not see this as a critical phase of the trial,” defense attorney Thomas Plunkett said, without adding further argument.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy said the media’s motion to overturn the judge’s order was among many surprises that were arising from Noor’s trial. Others included the defense’s failed attempt to play a video about implicit bias to prospective jurors and the prosecution’s request to admit two 3-D reconstruction videos of the crime scene at trial. The judge has not yet decided whether to grant that request.
“This is another one of these firsts that we’re experiencing here,” Sweasy said. “We feel very strongly that the defendant should be present.”
Noor’s constitutional rights to a public trial and due process could be impacted by Friday’s hearing, Sweasy said, and the defense needs to be present to address any possible concerns.
“I don’t think it gets any more serious than that,” she said.
At one point, Quaintance asked both sides whether they objected to her body-camera ruling. Neither side questioned the judge about the ruling or took a stance on it at the time.
Plunkett said he took no position. The judge said she viewed that as no objection, prompting Plunkett to reiterate his stance.
“I take no position on this,” he said.
Sweasy also did not enter either an objection or approval of the judge’s original ruling.
“We remain concerned,” Sweasy said.
Attorneys excused seven prospective jurors Thursday. A panel of 24 prospective jurors were called in the afternoon; six appeared to be people of color and eight appeared to be women. The candidates ranged from a Department of Homeland Security immigration officer and a college lacrosse player to a middle school librarian and an OB-GYN.
Plunkett asked prospective jurors whether they equated inexperience with being unqualified, an apparent nod to some public criticism that his client, who became a Minneapolis officer in 2015, was unqualified for his job. Several times he asked people if they were qualified for their jobs on their first day, eliciting some cautious “yes” answers. Plunkett also polled them on their initial impressions of Noor.
One woman, who works as a fourth-grade teacher, said that Noor “reminded me of students I’ve had.” Others commented that they were struck by his youthful appearance.
Of the 75 prospective jurors brought in Monday, 52 remain for further vetting. Many were excused during the last three days for various reasons, such as bias against Somali-Americans and having a strong opinion of Noor’s innocence or guilt.
Attorneys planned to seat a total of 16 jurors, four of them alternates. Jury selection resumes at 9 a.m. Friday.
Defense attorney Peter Wold indicated during a break in jury selection Thursday that attorneys could possibly make opening statements Monday.