The most vital question to be answered at the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, which began with jury selection on Monday, will be whether Noor is guilty of second-degree murder with intent, third-degree murder and manslaughter in the July 15, 2017, killing of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who had called 911 to report a possible rape in the alley behind her southwest Minneapolis residence.
But beyond the verdict, other concerns, including police-community relations and race (Damond was a white Australian and Noor is Somali-American), will weigh on the minds of a keenly interested public.
The court of public opinion will also be focused on the conduct of the trial itself. It is vital that both the local and international communities come away convinced that due process and fair justice have been provided to both the victim and the defendant in this sensitive case.
That is why it was appropriate that Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn L. Quaintance and Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson decided to add seven seats to the small courtroom where the trial will unfold.
The newly added seats will accommodate some media organizations that were initially shut out of the main courtroom and instead shunted to an overflow courtroom with video and audio feeds of the proceedings. Initially, only four local-media seats were allotted, with those going to the Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio, KSTP-TV and KARE-TV.
The other four initial media seats went to the New York Times, the Associated Press, ABC Australia and Channel 9 Australia, attesting to the national and international interest in the case. More Australian news organizations will now be able to be present in the courtroom.
The seat limitations, which could have been avoided by using a larger courtroom, also impact citizens interested in the trial’s outcome, including representatives from a group called Justice for Justine.
Another reassuring decision was to strike a sentence from the original order that the media must respect the “limitations” placed on lawyers, witnesses and jurors involved in the case. That language, according to a letter written by Leita Walker, an attorney representing a coalition of media organizations (which includes the Star Tribune), represented “a vague and ambiguous statement that, coupled with the specter of sanctions in that order, threatens to chill the exercise of the Coalitions’s free speech rights under the First Amendment.”
The First Amendment can coexist with Quaintance’s call “to preserve order and decorum ... and to ensure that the parties, witnesses and jurors ... are treated with respect.”
While order, decorum and respect are vital, so is transparency. It’s disappointing that Quaintance is limiting the public’s access to body camera footage shot after Damond’s killing, as well as photographs from the medical examiner. The Coalition filed a formal objection to that order on Tuesday.
“We believe that it is extremely important that the public be able to know what happens at the criminal trial, and the only way they can know that is to ensure that the media has full access to the trial so that they can comprehensively, accurately and thoroughly report on what happens,” Walker told an editorial writer.
The media, Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, told an editorial writer, “are simply the conduit of information to the general public. The court should be focused on the maximum degree of public information consistent with a fair trial so that the public ends up having the highest level of confidence that the correct decision was reached.”
The world is watching this case. The proceedings should be a global model of transparency.