Freeman announces murder charge against officer

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman relates charges Tuesday. Photo by Eric Best

Eight months after an officer shot and killed Justine Ruszczyk Damond in the alley behind her home, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced murder and manslaughter charges in the case today.

Officer Mohamed Noor is charged with murder in the third degree, which is a charge described as perpetrating an eminently dangerous act, and manslaughter in the second degree, a charge of culpable negligence creating unreasonable risk.

The police chief announced that Noor is no longer employed by the department.

Noor’s partner, Officer Matthew Harrity, told investigators that Damond startled them in the alley, prompting both officers to draw their guns.

Given that Harrity had a better vantage point and was still unable to see whether the person approaching their squad was a man, woman, adult, child, or carrying a weapon, Freeman said there was no way Noor could have properly assessed a threat from the passenger seat. Freeman alleged that Noor fired recklessly.

Noor’s attorney, Tom Plunkett, said in a statement that the facts will show Noor acted “as he has been trained and consistent with established departmental policy.”

“Officer Noor should not have been charged with any crime,” Plunkett said.

Freeman related a “nearly second-by-second” narrative of the incident at a press conference Tuesday. He said Harrity removed the safety hood of the holster of his gun as he drove south down the alley behind 5024 Washburn Ave. S., responding to Damond’s 911 call for a suspected sexual assault. According to the complaint, Harrity turned off the headlights, dimmed the computer screen and used a spotlight to look for people out the open driver’s side window of the car. He heard what may have been a dog, but nothing else, and slowed to two miles per hour. As they neared the end of the alley at 51st Street, 1 minute and 56 seconds after entering, Noor entered “Code 4” into the squad computer, meaning they were safe and didn’t need assistance. They sped up to eight miles per hour as they approached the end of the alley, and Harrity turned the lights back on and told Noor they would back up another officer on a call.

About five-10 seconds after the officers entered Code 4, Harrity told investigators he heard a muffled voice, a thump behind him on the squad car, and caught a glimpse of a person’s head and shoulders out the car window.

“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, un-holstered it, and held it to his ribcage while pointing it downward,” states the complaint. “…Officer Harrity then heard a sound that sounded like a light bulb dropping on the floor and saw a flash. After first checking to see if he had been shot, he looked to his right and saw Officer Noor with his right arm extended in the direction of Officer Harrity.”

According to the complaint, Harrity saw Damond put her hands on a gunshot wound on the left side of her abdomen, and she said something to the effect of: “I’m dying.” Harrity told Noor to re-holster his gun and turn his body camera on. Both of the officers and paramedics attempted to resuscitate Damond, and she died at the scene.

Harrity reportedly told a supervisor that the woman “came up on the side out of nowhere,” and said “we both got spooked.”

Noor has declined to speak to investigators, invoking his fifth amendment rights.

Freeman said the investigation did not find “any particular person” in the alleged sexual assault that originally prompted Damond’s 911 call.

The complaint states that Noor joined the force in March 2015 with no prior law enforcement experience, and Harrity joined in 2016. They were trained at the MPD Academy to identify a target and its threat before shooting at it, according to the complaint.

Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said he delayed his decision on Noor’s employment to avoid interfering in the investigation. He apologized to Damond’s family for her death, and said in a statement that he would redouble the department’s efforts to build trust.

Noor is in custody after turning himself in on Tuesday morning. His first court appearance is Wednesday. Freeman noted that Noor is innocent until proven guilty, and charges must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

View the press conference here.