Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman apparently has convened a grand jury to continue his investigation into the shooting death last summer of Fulton resident Justine Damond.
Freeman maintained that he would make the decision himself whether or not to charge Officer Mohamed Noor with Damond’s death. Noor allegedly shot Damond, also known as Justine Ruszczyk, after responding to her 911 call on July 15.
The Star Tribune was the first to report Freeman’s decision, noting in a Jan. 24 report that Noor’s partner on the night of the shooting, Officer Matthew Harrity, had been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury. Freeman’s office issued a statement responding to the story later that day.
“Because grand jury proceedings are secret, we cannot comment on grand jury subpoenas or any testimony that occurs before a grand jury,” the statement read. “Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman will continue the office’s two-year-old policy where he makes the decision on whether or not to bring charges in officer-involved shootings.”
Harrity’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment, but Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, later confirmed 30–40 members of the department had been called to testify. Their number includes field training officers who would have worked with Noor when he was a new recruit.
“They’re subpoenas that have nothing at all to do with the incident,” Kroll said, adding that field training officers would be unlikely to remember any specific recruit who wasn’t a “shining star” or failing out of the program. “Everybody else in the middle is forgotten about, and that is Noor in this situation.”
Bob Bennett, the attorney representing Damond’s family and her fiancé, Don, said his clients were “supportive of Freeman’s office’s efforts to get to the bottom of the thing.” He said Freeman’s decision was evidence that officers were “stonewalling” the investigation.
“Thirty-five Minneapolis police officers decided that they were basically not going to cooperate with the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, which is, if you think about it, a crazy notion,” Bennett said. “That’s unheard of.”
Uncovering the truth
Kroll disputed the notion that officers were uncooperative, noting that every officer who responded to the shooting scene near Damond’s 51st & Washburn home either participated in an interview with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension or submitted a written statement to the agency, which has been charged with investigating the case. An exception is Noor, who has so far refused an interview.
State law requires the use of a grand jury in cases involving certain very serious crimes, but in the majority of instances leaves the decision up to county attorneys. Still, grand juries are commonly used both in Minnesota and throughout the country in police shooting cases.
Freeman announced in March 2016 he would not use a grand jury in a case involving the shooting death of Jamar Clark, who died of a gunshot wound to the head after struggling with two Minneapolis Police officers. The statement issued by his office at that time acknowledged “a growing discussion that grand juries may no longer serve the present evolving standards of justice, accountability and transparency.”
Freeman noted that the grand jury process is private and that the basis of its decision on whether or not to bring charges is confidential. That the names of those serving on grand juries are not made public creates “a perceived lack of accountability,” he said.
“For me, grand juries should no longer be used in police shooting cases in Hennepin County,” he said.
Freeman ultimately declined to bring charges against the two officers in the Clark case, Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze.
Reacting to the news in the Damond case, Mayor Jacob Frey’s office issued the following statement: “Arriving at the right decision requires the right facts and complete truth. No institution — including the City of Minneapolis — should stand in the way of uncovering that truth.”
‘We still don’t have answers’
Ward 13 Council Member Linea Palmisano, who represents the Fulton neighborhood where Damond was killed, said she would “welcome all mechanisms available” to seek answers in the case.
“Just a couple of hours after the event, Justine’s neighbors began asking really important questions about what exactly happened that night,” Palmisano said. “… We still don’t have answers six months later.”
“Our entire community stands with the Damond family and those neighbors as we continue to seek justice for Justine,” she added.
Justice for Justine, a group formed by friends and neighbors of Damond after her death, described Freeman’s decision to call a grand jury a potentially “positive development” in the case as long as it aided the “exhaustive collection and analysis of all evidence and witness testimony.”
“As with other unorthodox aspects of this case, however, the decision to utilize a grand jury introduces new concerns,” the group added, noting that grand jury proceedings are secret and that any new information uncovered by the grand jury would remain secret if Freeman decides not to charge Noor.
Bennett said that wasn’t necessarily the case, noting that grand jury transcripts have been entered into evidence in civil trials.
“Obviously, the county attorney thinks that putting these people under oath in front of a grand jury would be productive of some evidence that would be important, or he wouldn’t do it,” he said. “My guess is that the noose is getting tighter.”
(This story was substantially updated Feb. 1.)