Noor verdict brings relief and calls for change

Don Damond speaks to the media April 30, after a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of his fiancée, Justine Ruszczyk Damond. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

John Ruszczyk said his family was satisfied with the outcome of a murder trial that will put his daughter’s killer, former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, behind bars.

On April 30, a jury convicted Noor of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, whom he shot in the alley behind her Fulton home.

Damond’s fiancé, Don, implored Minneapolis officers to live by their department’s motto: “to protect with courage, to serve with compassion.”

Neighbor Sarah Kuhnen said a conviction doesn’t mean that the system is fixed.

Those were a sample of the reactions following the jury’s verdict in the July 2017 death of Damond, a 40-year-old native of Australia. The jury acquitted Noor of second-degree murder.

John Ruszczyk said he hoped the case would be a “catalyst for further change,” while Don Damond called Justine a “living example of compassion” whose legacy continues to this day.

Speaking for Justice for Justine, a group of neighbors, Kuhnen said the conviction was welcome and that they would continue to fight for justice for all victims of police violence.

(Justice for Justine was planning a rally Wednesday evening, after this edition of the Southwest Journal went to press).

“What Justine has gotten, we want for everyone,” Kuhnen said. “If Justine is the only one to be treated this way, that is not real justice.”

‘Solid jury verdict’

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office prosecuted the case, said the outcome was a “solid jury verdict” that will be upheld on appeal.

Freeman said, to the best of his knowledge, this was the first murder conviction in Minnesota against an on-duty police officer. He said that “race has never been a factor in any of my decisions and never will be.”

Outside the courtroom, several civil rights activists applauded the verdict but said the system continues to treat people of color unfairly. John Thompson, a friend of Philando Castile, who was killed by a St. Anthony police officer, said African Americans are “always guilty until proven innocent.” He said he felt Noor should go to jail for the shooting but that the case sets the precedent that black officers aren’t innocent until proven guilty, unlike white officers.

Activist Mel Reeves said some people may feel angst because it’s “probably easier to convict a black cop than a white cop, especially when the victim is a white woman.” He said there’s an inherent bias in the U.S. that “white life is more valuable than black life.”

Not everyone outside the courthouse was pleased with the verdict. Minneapolis resident Alana Ramadan said the outcome was unjust and asked how officials could expect people of color to want to be police officers after this case.

Ramadan said she felt like the case was overcharged and that Freeman should have recused himself after criticizing the agency investigating the case at a 2017 holiday party.

Several Minneapolis elected officials released statements after the verdict offering their thoughts to the Damond and Ruszczyk families and their support to the Somali-American community. Noor is Somali-American.

Ward 13 City Council Member Linea Palmisano said she hoped the end of the trial would allow Damond’s loved ones and the community to take a step toward healing. She also said the best way to honor Damond is to simultaneously remember the pain that the Somali community has endured since the shooting.

“The Islamophobic, racist and anti-immigrant remarks that have accompanied the discourse of this trial have no place in society,” she said.

Mayor Jacob Frey said he stands with the Somali community and behind Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and officers who are committed to improving community relations. He said the verdict serves as a reminder of how far society must go to foster trust where it’s been broken.

Prosecutors questioned testimony

Freeman said after the trial that he had not yet spoken with jurors, who took about 11 hours to convict Noor on two of three counts. Noor was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs after the verdict was read, the Associated Press reported.

Noor fatally shot Damond on the night of July 15, 2017, after she called 911 and reported what she said sounded like a possible sexual assault behind her home. Prosecutors said Noor was unjustified in his decision to use deadly force, while Noor’s defense team said he fired to protect his partner, Officer Matthew Harrity.

Noor testified in court that a loud bang on the squad car scared Harrity and that he saw a figure raising an arm at the car’s driver’s side window. Prosecutors questioned whether the bang was real and noted that Ruszczyk’s fingerprints were not found on the car.

The presumptive sentences for manslaughter and third-degree murder convictions are 48 and 150 months, respectively, Freeman said. He said he anticipated the sentences would merge. Sentencing is set for June 7.

In a press conference following the verdict, Don Damond’s anguish was apparent even though he spoke calmly.

“That night there was a tragic lack of care and complete disregard for the sanctity of life,” he said. “The evidence in this case clearly showed an egregious failure of the Minneapolis Police Department.”

Speaking in front of a global press corps, he asked people to remember that “this case is about Justine.”

“Justine lived to teach us about love,” he said. “I want to thank everyone who has held us in their hearts and prayers. We have not walked this path alone.”