In Noor case, legal wrangling over squad car tests

As 2018 transitioned into 2019, attorneys representing former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor sparred with the city over a request to independently examine a squad car.

Noor’s attorneys ultimately chose not to conduct the tests in late December, arguing that the court had placed too many restrictions on their access to the police vehicle. They also said the back-and-forth with city attorneys forced them to openly discuss aspects of their defense strategy in court.

Noor is facing trial on murder charges related to the July 2017 death of Justine Damond, also known as Justine Ruszczyk. Damond, who had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault, was shot and killed by Noor in the alley behind her 51st & Washburn home as she approached the police SUV piloted by Noor’s partner.

Riding in the squad car’s passenger seat, Noor allegedly reached across his partner and fired his weapon out the vehicle’s driver’s side window. Damond was struck in the torso and died at the scene.

The incident occured shortly before midnight. Noor’s partner that night, Officer Matthew Harrity, told investigators he turned off the vehicle’s headlights as the two drove through the alley toward Damond’s house. Harrity said they were “spooked” by a thump on the back of the vehicle as Damond approached, telling investigators she “came up on the side out of nowhere.”

Noor was fired from the department last March, on the same day Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges against him. An additional second-degree murder charge has since been added against Noor, who intends to plead not guilty.

In an ex parte motion filed Dec. 26, Noor’s legal team requested “access to a squad car to allow the defense the opportunity to independently gather information, make measurements and allow testing and analysis.” The night of the 28th was chosen because the defense team determined illumination from the moon then would be similar to the night of the incident.

The court accepted the argument presented by Noor’s attorneys, issuing an order later that same day that directed the city to grant his defense team access to a squad car for independent tests on the 28th.

Deputy City Attorney Erik Nilsson responded in a letter to the court on the 28th, stating the city would not object to providing a squad car for testing. But the letter also outlined several points of concern for the city, including “any destructive testing that would cause damage or alteration to the squad car” and which officers would assist with the testing the vehicle, which the city insisted must remain in police control.

The city also asked for the judge to issue an order prohibiting the defense team from “interviewing, questioning or otherwise seeking information unrelated to the squad car” from the officers in charge of the vehicle.

Quaintance then issued an order requiring the city to allow access to a squad car between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. on the 28th “in the area of the Minneapolis Police Department’s 5th Precinct.”

But the tests never occurred. A Jan. 2 letter from Noor’s attorneys explained why.

One of Noor’s attorneys, Peter Wold, first reached out to the Minneapolis Police Federation about access to a squad car. The union informed Wold that his team, including a potential expert witness, would have that opportunity Dec. 28.

Wold learned on Dec. 24 he would need a court order to proceed, according to the written objection added to Noor’s court file. He filed a motion requesting access Dec. 26, and hearing was held the following day. But attorneys from the city weren’t present for the hearing, and the Hennepin County District Court judge overseeing the case, Kathryn Quaintance, didn’t learn of the city’s specific concerns until Nilsson submitted his letter on the morning of the 28th.

In their written objection, Noor’s attorneys said the order Quaintance issued that afternoon restricted their testing location to the 5th Precinct and wouldn’t have allowed them to bring the vehicle closer to the scene of the shooting. They complained that Quaintance’s order “gelded the defense investigation.”

Noor is next scheduled to appear in court for a pre-trial hearing March 1. His trial is scheduled to begin April 1.