The former American police officer Mohamed Noor, center, is accompanied by his attorneys Peter Wold, not shown, and Thomas Plunkett, right, as he walks in the direction of the Hennepin County Government Center for the opening arguments of his trial Tuesday, April 9, 2019, in Minneapolis Opening arguments scheduled to begin in the trial of the former American police officer Mohamed Noor in the shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond. (David Joles/Star Tribune via AP)
MINNEAPOLIS – When a U.s. police officer shot and killed an unarmed woman who approached his patrol car after calling 911, it was a disaster. But, was it murder?
The prosecutors have given jurors hearing the case against Mohammed Noor multiple options: second degree murder third degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The jury will ultimately decide whether one of the counts to fit what happened on the evening of 15 July 2017, when Noor fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond just a few minutes after the dual citizen of the V. S. and Australia, who had called in a report of a possible sexual assault behind her house.
As I test, prepares to enter the third week, the defense lawyers are not connected with the case in a larger and much-used strategy to overload the case may be, in a way that could make it easy for the judges to convince, on the lesser manslaughter count.
“The jury like to be King Solomon,” said Earl Gray, a lawyer in the team that successfully defended former Minnesota officer Jeronimo Yanez against a manslaughter costs, in 2016, the shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop. “They want to split the baby and give each side in half.”
“The prosecution is like hunting,” said another lawyer, Marsh Halberg, who have been sitting in on some of the key testimony. “You throw a lot of pellets in the air and you don’t care which one brings the bird. Of course, you would always want to get a conviction on the highest charges, but you want to leave at the end of the day with a conviction.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman was under intense community pressure and international scrutiny as he decided whether to charge Noor in Damond’s death, which had led to a police dismissal. Freeman let slip in an unguarded moment captured on video in December 2017, that he does not have enough evidence at that time to charge Noor, say researchers “haven’t done their job.” When Freeman finally declaration in March 2018, he said the evidence clearly fit into the legal definitions of third degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
But Noor’s legal team and other local defense attorneys, said the third-degree murder charges was an overload. Prosecutors added the second-degree murder charges late last year. The likely sentences range from four years for the manslaughter charge to 12½ years for the third degree murder to 25½ years for second degree murder.
Nor Halberg nor Gray think that the jury is likely to convict Noor of the third degree murder, because the state statute requires jurors to find that someone acted with a “depraved mind, without respect for human life”, a term which is so ill-defined and potentially confusing that the prosecutors rarely use the cargo.
In Noor’s case, the prosecution proposed jury instructions that specifically avoid the term, and call it in place of “an act eminently dangerous to others” and “carried out without regard for human life … committed in a reckless or intentional manner with knowledge that someone be killed and with a careless disregard that it’s happening.” The defense of the proposed instructions use the term “depraved mind.” Judge Kathryn Quaintance yet to rule.
Halberg was in the court Thursday for the testimony of Noor’s husband, Director Matthew Harrity, and looking at Harrity the body camera video was shown to the jury. In addition to the grief of seeing her die on-camera, Halberg said he was “touched by the humanity of the two officers. She held her up and dropped her on the ground. Noor is doing cpr and they were shouting encouragement for her.”
The care they showed her “really fly in the face of the depraved mind argument,” he said.
Under Minnesota law, the second degree murder includes the intentional causing of death of another person, without premeditation. The second degree manslaughter requires that the defendant acted with “culpable negligence” in taking the chance of causing death or great bodily harm.
Halberg said that it will be difficult to overcome the defense that Noor’s team has argued that the police can legally shoot if they have a reasonable fear that she is in danger. Noor’s lawyers have argued that he heard a loud noise and feared an ambush. But the prosecutors say that there is no evidence of any threat justifying deadly force.
But some of the circumstances — Noor was in the passenger seat and fired his gun about Harrity by the window in a dark alley — the jury reasons to find him guilty of manslaughter, Halberg said.
“That is the burden that would fit in the case,” Gray said.
Check out the AP’s complete coverage of Mohamed Noor and the trial.