By Libor Jany Star Tribune
Tuesday March 20, 2018
HENNEPIN COUNTY JAIL - Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor was charged Tuesday with murder and manslaughter in the July shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor was charged Tuesday with murder and manslaughter in the July shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a decision that prosecutors said was delayed by some of the officer’s colleagues’ reluctance to testify.
Noor is charged with third-degree murder “perpetrating eminently dangerous act and evincing depraved mind” and second-degree manslaughter, “culpable negligence creating unreasonable risk.” in the shooting, which drew international attention and led to the ouster of Police Chief Janeé Harteau.
“A person sitting in a passenger seat of a squad car takes a gun, hears a noise, maybe sees some object...He reaches across in front of his partner, shoots a gun at an object that he can’t see. That’s evidence of a depraved mind in my view,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said at an afternoon news conference announcing the charges. While Freeman said he believes they have gathered enough evidence “as humanly possible” in the case, “We have a daunting task in front of us.”
In a statement, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said Noor was no longer employed with the department, effective Tuesday. “At the request of the County Attorney’s Office I delayed any employment related decisions in this matter as to not in any way interfere with the criminal investigation in this case,” he said.
Freeman told reporters that the case “would’ve been done much quicker” if some of Noor’s fellow officers had agreed to cooperate with investigators, prompting his decision to convene a grand jury. He said that some officers, including police Chief Medaria Arradondo, came in voluntarily to testify before the grand jury.
Noor was booked into jail at 11:16 a.m., according to jail records, on a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) warrant for third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Bail was set at $500,000, with Noor’s first court appearance likely scheduled for Wednesday.
Damond, 40, a native of Australia, was shot and killed July 15 after calling police to report a possible assault behind her south Minneapolis home. Noor was in the passenger seat and fired across his partner, Matthew Harrity, killing Damond. Freeman said he would decide whether to charge Noor in Damond’s death, but convened a grand jury to gather additional evidence. Freeman said he convened the grand jury because several Minneapolis police officers refused to cooperate with the investigation into Damond’s death.
“I’ve been privileged to have this job nearly 18 years and I’ve never had police officers who weren’t suspects refuse to do their duty and come talk to us,” Freeman said.
“These are hard jobs and tough questions. The police patrol, investigate and present us cases, we evaluate those cases and have to make the charging decision and do the prosecution,” he said. “There’s going to tension between those two roles but...we will not stop getting all the evidence even if we have to ruffle some feathers.”
Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, the union that represents the department’s rank and file officers, said in a statement that officers were simply advised of their rights, and none were told not to speak with investigators. He said many of them called to testify had nothing to do with the case.
“No opinions were offered on what action to take with any of our members. For Mr. Freeman to say this, he is either lying or perpetuating a lie told to him,” Kroll said. “This is evidenced by the fact that nothing in the criminal complaint was discovered during grand jury testimony.”
‘We both got spooked’
Charges in the case unsealed Tuesday afternoon are consistent with initial information released by BCA investigators — that Harrity heard a sound coming from behind the vehicle before Noor fired, striking Damond. They reveal more details as to what happened that night:
Harrity and Noor arrived to the alley behind Damond’s home at 50th and Xerxes avenues. Their headlights were off and the computer screen dimmed, but the spotlight was on. Harrity, who was not wearing his seat belt, removed the safety hood of his holster over his gun before turning into the alley. Harrity said he heard what he believed to be a dog before reaching the rear of Damond’s home at 5024 Washburn Avenue but did not get out of the car to investigate. He did not hear other noises. The squad car slowed to 2 miles per hour but never stopped.
As the squad neared the end of the alley at 51st Street, nearly 2 minutes after arriving, Noor entered “Code 4” into the squad computer, indicating they were safe and needed no assistance.
Neither officers’ cameras were on at the time of the shooting, but both turned them on immediately afterward. Harrity began CPR, with Noor taking over afterward. Paramedics arrived at 11:49 p.m. but Damond died at the scene of a gunshot wound to the abdomen.
While Noor has declined to give a statement, Harrity later said that before the shooting he and Noor had cleared the call and were at the end of the alley waiting for a bicyclist to pass. Harrity had replaced the safety hood on his holster, and Noor had cleared the call on the computer.
Five to 10 seconds later, Harrity 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 window.”
Charges said he was not able to articulate what the noise was, how loud it was, what the person’s voice sounded like, or what the person said. He characterized it as “a muffled voice or a whisper.” He estimated the person was two feet away and he couldn’t see their hands, or weapons.
“Officer Harrity said he was startled and said ‘Oh sh*t or Oh Jesus.’ He said he perceived that his life was in danger, reached for his gun, unholstered it, and held it to his rib cage while pointing it downward. He said from the driver’s seat he had a better vantage point to determine a threat than Officer Noor would have had from the passenger seat.”
Harrity then heard a sound “that sounded like a light bulb dropping on the floor and saw a flash.” After first checking to see whether he had been shot, he looked to his right and saw Noor with his right arm extended toward Harrity but did not see a gun. He then looked out of his window and saw Damond, “who put her hands on a gunshot wound on the left side of her abdomen and said ‘I’m dying’ or ‘I’m dead.’ ” charges said.
“Officer Harrity said that once he saw the woman’s hands he believed her to no longer be a threat and he got out of the squad car.”
Noor got out still armed and Harrity told him to reholster his gun and turn his body camera on. Afterward, Harrity is on camera telling a sergeant that “she came up on the side out of nowhere.” and that “We both got spooked” and he had his gun out. He said Officer Noor “pulled out and fired.” At the time, he did not mention hearing a voice or a noise before the shot was fired, charges said.
“There is no evidence that ... Officer Noor encountered, appreciated, investigated or confirmed a threat that justified the decision to use deadly force,” charges said. “Instead, Officer Noor recklessly and intentionally fired his handgun from the passenger seat, a location at which he would have been less able than Officer Harrity to see and hear events on the other side of the squad car.”
Damond’s fiancé, Don Damond and his family, along with Damond’s father, John Ruszczyk and the Ruszczyk family, applauded the charges in a joint statement, calling it “one step toward justice for this iniquitous act.”
“While we waited over eight months to come to this point, we are pleased with the way a grand jury and County Attorney Mike Freeman appear to have been diligent and thorough in investigating and ultimately determining that these charges are justified,” the statement said. “We remain hopeful that a strong case will be presented by the prosecutor, backed by verified and detailed forensic evidence, and that this will lead to a conviction. No charges can bring our Justine back. However, justice demands accountability for those responsible for recklessly killing the fellow citizens they are sworn to protect, and today’s actions reflect that.”
Shortly after the charges were announced, Harteau tweeted that Noor’s actions were his own and shouldn’t reflect on the good work of other officers.
“Justine Damond’s family deserves answers and they deserve justice,” she posted from her personal account. “As I originally stated Justine didn’t have to die.”
This particular murder count requires for conviction proof that the suspect had a “depraved mind” at the time, but there’s no definition in state law for what that means, said longtime defense attorney Joe Friedberg, who is not involved in this case.
Friedberg added that the count is primarily used by prosecutors to fight off insanity defenses, he added.
“The law was designed for the guy who stands on a hillside and shoots at a passing train, not caring who he kills,” Friedberg said.
Friedberg said he sees the murder charge as a potential negotiating tactic for Freeman, one that he could immediately drop should Noor agree to plead guilty to the manslaughter count.
News of the charges met a mixed reaction among longtime department observers.
Jess Sundin said that Freeman’s decision signaled a new willingness to charge officers involved in shootings, while adding that only with Noor’s conviction will true accountability occur. Sundin is an organizer for Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar, a coalition is named for Jamar Clark, who was shot and killed during a struggle with two Minneapolis police officers in 2014. The officers were not charged.
“My hope would be that first we see a serious prosecution, we don’t see the case mishandled, and that Justine Damond and her family get justice through the criminal justice system,” she said.
King Demetrius Pendleton, a citizen journalist who regularly live streams Black Lives Matter rallies, camped out in the Government Center lobby awaiting info about the charges.
While a possible conviction would bring some justice to the Damond family, Pendleton said he struggles with the outcome of this case. He fears that making an example out of a black, Muslim cop will further deteriorate race relations, when jurors failed to convict Jeronimo Yanez for the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile.
“We’re to turn a blind eye to that, but when a white lady from high class neighborhood is killed it’s totally different,” he said. “Why can’t Philando get justice?”
Yanez acquittal was “a spit in the face,” Pendleton said. “No matter which way you cut it, the African-American community will never get justice.”
In a statement released after Freeman’s news conference, police unions officials said that because of the criminal charges that they couldn’t discuss the specifics of the case.
We recognize the tragic shooting of Justine Damond has greatly impacted, not only her family and friends, our membership, but also our community,” said the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis statement. “We respect the criminal justice process and wait for the case to proceed before making further comment.”
The union, which represents the city’s roughly 880 rank-and-file officers, has under fire for not publicly defend Noor.
Police Department officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Tuesday, residents in the quiet Fulton neighborhood where the shooting happened welcomed the charges.
Ryan Masterson, a neighbor who lives directly across from the alley where Damond died, stopped to place yellow daisies at the memorial that he’s helped maintain over the past eight months.
Damond’s death helped strength the community, he said. He applauded Freeman’s decision to charge Noor as the beginning of a long awaited resolution: “The family will finally get some answers. There’s a calming peace brought today,” he said. “This is where I wanted to be.”
He’s hopeful Noor’s arrest will ultimately lead to a conviction.
“I’ve had countless sleepless nights,” said Masterson, who admits he’s not yet had time to grieve. “From my bedroom I can look out and see the activity [at the memorial.]”
The continued investigation into Damond’s death also caused racial tension in the ranks of the Police Department.
Frustration boiled over last fall after someone scrawled an ominous message on a white board in a south Minneapolis police station that some interpreted as a threat against a well-known Somali-American detective. A spokesperson said at the time that the department looked into the matter, before finding that it amounted to nothing more than “office banter.” And a sergeant in the 2nd Precinct came under investigation earlier this month after he made disparaging comments about Somalis on his personal Facebook page.
The Somali Police Officers Association has declined repeated requests for comment.
When asked about Noor’s future with the police department at a community forum earlier this month, Chief Medaria Arradondo said that even if he wanted to fire an officer for alleged misconduct his hands were tied. Officers fired for on-the-job misconduct or criminal behavior can petition to get their jobs back through a labyrinthine union grievance process, which can drag on for months. Arradondo said he was closely monitoring an appellate case from a fired Richfield cop, which legal experts see as a significant test of the decades-old arbitration system.
One of the officers who was called to testify said that he was asked whether a climate of distrust between the police and the public might have contributed to Damond’s shooting. He declined to give his name because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Other officers who appeared before the grand jury were grilled about Noor’s training and fitness for duty.
The grand jury concluded its inquiry Monday, after calling three Police Department employees, including two Somali officers who had never worked closely with Noor.