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Noor trial: Defense says Noor saw figure outside squad, feared ambush

Tuesday April 9, 2019
By Jon Collins, Riham Feshir, Cody Nelson

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor leaves the Hennepin County Government Center after the first day of trial in Minneapolis on April 1, 2019. 

Minneapolis -  Mohamed Noor fired his weapon to protect his terrified partner in an alley after seeing a figure by the driver's side window of his police squad raise their right arm, the ex-Minneapolis police officer's lawyer argued Tuesday.

Calling it a potential "ambush scenario, a setup," Peter Wold argued that Noor feared for his life and his partner's life as they responded to a 911 call.

Noor shot the 911 caller, Justine Ruszczyk.

Wold argued that Noor fired after his partner, officer Matthew Harrity exclaimed "Oh Jesus" after hearing a thump or bang on the squad.

"Sometimes your job has negative and unintended circumstances, and that is exactly what happened in that narrow dark alley in those split seconds that night," Wold told jurors.

 The question of whether there was a thump on the squad was key for the defense and prosecution in Tuesday's opening statements.

Earlier, prosecutors argued that the thump was made up later, that no police at the scene talked about a thump on the squad that night.

Prosecutors also said that officers at the scene turned their body cameras on and off, including the sergeant who took Noor's statement, so there is no audio of that encounter, just silent video from the 30-second delay.

Noor is charged with second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of Ruszczyk, also known as Justine Damond, in July 2017. She had called 911 to report what she thought was an assault happening behind her home.

Investigators say Noor, one of the responding police officers, shot Ruszczyk through the open driver's side window of the squad. He's only the second officer to be charged in an on-duty killing of a civilian in Minnesota.

Wold called Ruszczyk's killing "a tragedy, but in no way was it a crime."

At one point, Judge Kathryn Quaintance scolded Wold for trying to talk about an incident where a police officer was ambushed earlier in 2017. "We're not here for headlines," she told the lawyer. "Talk about the evidence in the case and what the evidence will show."

'OK, the police are here'

Prosecutor Patrick Lofton laid out the facts of the case while displaying a photo of Justine Ruszczyk for the jury. He began and ended with what she told her fiance Don Damond on the phone: "OK, the police are here."

Lofton said Ruszczyk was holding nothing but a gold iPhone. The same phone she used to call 911.

"He (Noor) fired that shot without saying a word," Lofton said.

The prosecution said the incident began earlier in the evening with another 911 call Noor received about a woman who seemed to be lost or had dementia and was walking around Ruszczyk's neighborhood. That call came at 9:15 p.m.

Lofton said that 911 caller called three times and will testify that she contacted police the next day when she heard about the shooting and was told to talk to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension but then told the information was not relevant.

He said Noor and his partner didn't see anything and left.

An hour and a half later, they responded to Ruszczyk's call about a "female screaming behind the building." Lofton said they cleared that call and "weren't going to go out and look for female screaming behind the building."

The prosecutor said he plans to introduce a body cam recording after the shooting where Harrity is heard saying he and Noor were surprised by Ruszczyk and that when a responding officer suggests seeking out a suspect, Harrity says "it was our shot."

 Wold argued the facts will show that Noor's acts were not those of a criminal and that he acted reasonably with the information he had at the time.

He said Noor has been "heartbroken" since the moment he realized she was not the threat "he reasonably perceived."

He urged jurors to consider the case with not just what happened that night but all of the context and background the defense plans to introduce.

Wold talked to jurors for 25 minutes about Noor's history, saying he'd been born on a small farm in Somalia and immigrated with his family to the United States as a 7-year-old after living in a refugee camp in Kenya.

He told jurors about Noor's experience in college and his path to becoming a police officer.

In emotional testimony Tuesday afternoon, Don Damond recounted the evening of the shooting. He was in Las Vegas on a business trip when he got a call from Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigators that Rusczcyk had been shot.

"I was in shock. I was shaking," he said. "I said please treat her body with dignity."

He initially thought she'd been shot by someone tied to Rusczcyk's original 911 call. He wasn't told that she'd been shot by a police officer.

The BCA later arranged to return Ruszczyk's engagement ring to Damond.

"I held out just a small bit of hope that it would be the wrong ring," he told jurors. "You hold out hope that in some way it was a mistake."

Who's the jury?

They are 12 men and four women, including alternates. Six appear to be people of color or indigenous or have identified themselves that way. In questionnaires and in initial interviews with attorneys, they revealed some of who they are.

One is a woman who is a doctor who talked about implicit bias in her profession, noting that people sometimes mistake her for a nurse or a lab technician and question her knowledge as a doctor.
There is a woman who is a gun owner and a hunter who said she would generally give police officers who testify more credit than civilians and would find it difficult to convict a police officer.

During jury selection on Friday, she came to tears when thinking about having to see graphic evidence like autopsy photos and body camera footage of the victim dying. But she also said she could be fair and impartial.

There is a carpenter. A grocery store manager. A civil engineer. A person who works in financial services. A firefighter who is also a paramedic — who says he knew three people on the prosecution's witness list — and trained with one of them. He also said he would weigh the testimony objectively.

Several talked about their experience as immigrants.

None of the jurors of color are alternates. So, in final deliberations, the verdict could be decided by a 12-person jury that appears to be half white and half people of color.

Race has been at the center of this trial already with questions for the jury about implicit bias and whether any of them have had negative experiences with Somali people.

No First Amendment privacy

Quaintance's decision to make public video footage used in court of the shooting aftermath comes after several Twin Cities news organizations, including MPR News, argued she was placing unconstitutional restrictions on the trial.

Quaintance had initially said she would not allow public release of those images. "I am trying to protect pictures of this woman naked and her gasping for breath in the last moments of her life," she said Friday.

On Tuesday, however, she told the court, "It's clear that I need to follow legal precedent ... there is no role of victim privacy in the First Amendment."

Leita Walker, the attorney representing news organizations in the case, said "the media coalition takes no joy in anything related to this trial" but that it was important information in the trial be open so the press can report and the public "can judge for itself the ultimate verdict and how the judicial system works."

There has been no ruling yet on whether certain graphic evidence is admissible, Walker noted.


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