Eight months after a police officer shot and killed Justine Damond in a dark alley behind her Fulton-neighborhood home, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced murder and manslaughter charges in the case March 20.
Freeman charged former officer Mohamed Noor, 32, with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the July 15 shooting. Damond, 40, a native of Australia also known as Justine Ruszczyk, was shot after calling 911 to report a possible sexual assault.
Freeman said Noor acted “recklessly,” firing his handgun from the passenger seat of the police cruiser driven to the scene by his partner, Matthew Harrity. He said there was “no evidence” of a threat justifying deadly force.
Damond’s neighbor Sarah Kuhnen said in a statement that neighbors were “relieved” Noor was being prosecuted. She said they hoped for a swift trial that is “respectful to Justine and her loved ones.”
She said police must be held accountable for their actions, adding that the decision to prosecute alone isn’t enough to ensure “justice that heals the community.”
“The officer that shot Justine was trained within a policing system and culture that is deeply flawed,” Kuhnen said. “As a result, the contract between the police and the citizens of Minneapolis is broken.”
Freeman said the decision to charge was his alone. He called a grand jury to investigate the shooting despite his 2016 pledge to avoid using grand juries in police shooting cases because of concerns about transparency and “a perceived lack of accountability.” But Freeman said a lack of cooperation from some officers left him “no choice” in this case.
Freeman said the United States saw more than 12,000 police shootings from 2005 to 2017, according to a study by Philip Stinson at Bowling Green State University and the Department of Justice. He said only 80 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter and just 35 percent of those charged were convicted of the crime.
Noor’s attorney, Tom Plunkett, said his client “should not have been charged with any crime.”
“The facts will show that Officer Noor acted as he has been trained and consistent with established departmental policy,” Plunkett said in a statement.
According to the criminal complaint, Damond called 911 just before 11:30 p.m. to report a possible assault. She could hear a woman’s voice coming from the alley behind her Washburn Avenue home, and the voice sounded distressed.
Driving a marked squad car, Harrity, in the driver’s seat, and Noor, the passenger, arrived about 10 minutes later and began driving through the alley. They turned off the headlights and activated the squad’s spotlight.
Harrity told investigators he was not wearing his seatbelt and had unfastened the safety hood on his gun holster before entering the alley, according to the complaint.
After driving slowly through the alley for about two minutes, the squad car was nearing the area behind Damond’s house. Harrity parked the car at the end of the alley and placed the safety hood back on his weapon while Noor entered “Code 4” into the squad computer, indicating they found nothing and were preparing to leave.
Harrity told investigators he was then startled by a thump behind him on the squad car and un-holstered his gun, pulling it up to his ribcage and pointing it downward. He said he heard a noise “that sounded like a light bulb dropping on the floor and saw a flash,” according to the complaint, and when he looked to his right saw Noor with his arm extended toward the driver’s side of the vehicle.
Harrity said he didn’t see Noor’s gun, according to the complaint.
Harrity told investigators he then looked out his window and saw a woman with a gunshot wound to her left side. To his recollection, she either said “I’m dying” or “I’m dead.”
The two exited the vehicle. Harrity said he told Noor to re-holster his weapon and activate his body-worn camera. Harrity’s camera recorded a conversation with a supervising sergeant at the scene; according to the complaint, he told the sergeant Damond “came up on the side out of nowhere,” that they “both got spooked” and that Noor “pulled out and fired.”
The complaint notes Harrity didn’t mention at that time hearing a voice or noises before Noor fired.
The complaint states Noor joined the force in March 2015 with no prior law enforcement experience. Harrity joined in 2016. Both underwent department training to identify a target and its threat before shooting at it, according to the complaint.
Lack of cooperation
Freeman said he used the grand jury to compel testimony from officers who refused to cooperate. While many officers came forward, and Chief Medaria Arradondo was first to cooperate in the investigation, others did not, saying they were acting on the advice of the police union, he said.
“I’ve been privileged to have this job nearly 18 years. I’ve never had police officers who weren’t suspects refuse to do their duty and come forward and talk to us,” Freeman said. “We therefore had no alternative than to subpoena them to a grand jury and take their testimony under oath.”
In a statement released after Freeman’s press conference, Bob Kroll, president of the police union, said the union took “great exception” to Freeman’s “irresponsible” statement. He said many of the union members under subpoena had no involvement whatsoever with the shooting and were confused that Freeman’s office would want to speak with them.
“No opinions were offered on what action to take with any of our members,” Kroll said. “For Mr. Freeman to say this, he is either lying or perpetuating a lie told to him.”
Noor was scheduled to make his first court appearance just after this issue went to press. He turned himself in March 20 several hours before Freeman publicly announced the charges. The county attorney’s office was asking for bail to be set at $500,000.
Noor ‘s time on the force ended the day charges were announced, according to Arradondo, who said he delayed his decision on Noor’s employment to avoid interfering in the investigation.
“As Chief, I am committed to ensuring that myself, and every member of the MPD, learn from this tragedy,” he said in a statement. “It is imperative that we as a Police Department build trust in those places where it did not exist, and increase the trust in those places where it has been shaken.”
‘Justice for all’
Chants of “justice for Justine, justice for all” opened a March 20 rally that drew roughly 100 people to a 50th & Washburn parking lot just a few houses north of the home shared by Damond and her fiance Don.
Katherine Hamberg, a longtime Fulton resident and neighbor of Damond’s, said the shooting shattered “the illusion of safety and security” in her neighborhood. She warned against framing this as a case of “one bad cop” when instead, Hamberg said, it was about the culture of a police department in need of reform.
Damond’s death followed other high-profile Twin Cities police shootings, including Jamar Clark in Minneapolis in 2015 and Philando Castile in St. Anthony in 2016. In both those cases, officers were ultimately cleared of charges. A key difference this time, several who spoke at the rally noted, was that Damond was a white woman living in a predominantly white neighborhood.
Bethany Bradley, a member of the Justice for Justine group that formed after Damond’s death, said it was time for “white neighbors of privilege” to recognize racism and bias in the community.
“A charge means nothing without a conviction and systemic change,” Bradley said.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, a former Minneapolis NAACP president and 2017 candidate for mayor, described it as a “very tough and bittersweet day.” Alleging that Freeman “routinely fails to hold police officers accountable,” Levy-Pounds said it should not have taken the death of “a beautiful white woman” for Minneapolis residents to “wake up.”
“You all know you have the most political power in the City of Minneapolis,” Levy-Pounds said, referring to Damond’s neighbors, residents of Minneapolis’ highest-turnout voting districts. “… With that privilege and power comes responsibility.”
— Eric Best contributed to this report.