Noor trial set for April 1 start

Ex-officer faces murder charges for July 2017 shooting of Justine Damond

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor was surrounded by cameras as he left the Hennepin County Government Center with his attorneys Thursday. The judge in his murder trial set an April 1 start date for proceedings. Photo by Dylan Thomas

The criminal trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor is scheduled to begin April 1 in Hennepin County District Court.

Fourth Judicial District Judge Kathryn L. Quaintance set the trial date during a Sept. 27 omnibus hearing in agreement with Noor’s defense team and prosecutors from the Hennepin County Attorney’s office. Quaintance also ruled that there was probable cause to try Noor on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, denying requests from Noor’s attorneys to dismiss the charges.

On July 15, 2017, Noor shot and killed 40-year-old Justine Damond in the alley behind her Fulton neighborhood home. Damond, also known as Justine Ruszczyk, had called 911 just before 11:30 p.m. to report a possible sexual assault and was shot as she approached the police vehicle driven by Noor’s former partner, Officer Matthew Harrity.

Noor has not entered a plea in the case, but his attorneys have said he intends to plead not guilty.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced the charges against Noor in March. Noor was fired from the police department that same month.

His attorneys, Tom Plunkett and Peter Wold, filed motions in August to dismiss the charges, claiming prosecutorial misconduct on the part of Freeman and a lack of probable cause.

The claim of prosecutorial misconduct stemmed from statements Freeman made during a September 2017 community meeting — when he said a jury had erred in acquitting former St. Anthony officer Jeronimo Yanez in another high-profile police shooting case — and at a December 2017 labor union holiday party. Freeman said he was unaware activists were recording him at the party when he criticized Minneapolis police for not cooperating with the investigation.

In the video, Freeman describes the opportunity to promptly bring charges against Noor as “the big present I’d like to see under the Christmas tree,” but Quaintance rejected defense attorneys’ argument that those comments had undermined Noor’s right to a fair trial.

“Here, the wiser course would be for the County Attorney to remain silent during an ongoing investigation,” Quaintance wrote in her order. “However, the defense has failed to establish a basis for prosecutorial misconduct and dismissal with regard to the County Attorney’s statements.”

Freeman later apologized for the holiday party comments, but he also called a grand jury in order to compel officers to testify.

Quaintance also found that the state had cleared the bar in showing probable cause for both of the charges against Noor.

His defense team argued in an August motion that Noor’s actions did not meet the standard for third-degree murder, defined in part as “an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.” But in her order Quaintance wrote, “Defendant either saw and fired at what he believed was a person, or he fired into the darkness at an unknown target. Under either scenario, the jury could find that his act was dangerous to human beings and was performed without regard for human life.”

The jury could also take into consideration the evidence that Noor fired from the passenger seat of the car, reaching in front of his partner to shoot out the driver’s side window, when considering whether Noor’s actions were “reckless and wanton,” the judge added.

In their August motion to dismiss, Noor’s attorneys also argued that the ex-officer fired his weapon only once in “an attempt to minimize the danger he and Officer Harrity believed was real at that moment.” They said his actions ran counter to the “culpable negligence” standard for second-degree manslaughter.

Quaintance rejected that argument as well, noting that a jury could find that by shooting into the darkness Noor “consciously created an unreasonable risk of causing death or great bodily harm.”

In a third order issued Sept. 27, Quaintance also denied the defense team’s motion to suppress psychological records produced during Noor’s hiring process. Noor’s attorneys argued it would be a violation of physician-patient privilege to enter the records in court, but Quaintance found that psychiatrist who assessed Noor’s fitness for police work was not his personal physician and that Noor should have known records produced during the hiring process were not confidential.

The shooting of Damond, a native of Australia living in Minneapolis with her fiance, led to significant changes within the Minneapolis Police Department. Former Chief Janeé Harteau resigned a week after the shooting at the request of then-Mayor Betsy Hodges, who nominated Assistant Chief Medaria Arradondo to take her place. Arradondo now leads the department.

The shooting also prompted revisions to the department’s officer-worn body camera policy. Both Harrity and Noor were wearing body cameras at the time of the shooting, but neither officer had activated his camera. Less than two weeks after Damond’s death, Arradondo announced policy changes that required officers to activate their cameras for most calls.

In addition to the ongoing criminal trial, Noor is also named in two civil lawsuits making their way through federal court, including a lawsuit filed by Damond’s Australian family that is seeking $50 million in damages.