Filings preview arguments in Noor trial

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor leaving the courthouse after an appearance in May. Noor was escorted by defense attorneys Peter Wold, left, and Tom Plunkett, right. File photo

A flurry of mid-February court filings previewed some of the arguments prosecutors and the defense team for Mohamed Noor intend to deploy in court when the former police officer stands trial for murder in April.

Noor faces murder and manslaughter charges in the July 2017 on-duty shooting of Fulton neighborhood resident Justine Damond, also known as Justine Ruszczyk. The trial before Hennepin County District Court Judge Kathryn L. Quaintance is scheduled to begin April 1.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors from the Hennepin County Attorney’s office wrangled over what evidence could be used during the trial — including Noor’s pre-employment psychological evaluation — and the potential testimony of expert witnesses for both sides. Also debated in the filings were the instructions to be given members of the jury, who will have to decide if Noor acted reasonably when he used deadly force against Damond, a 40-year-old native of Australia living in Minneapolis with her fiancé.

The incident that prompted the trial took place shortly before midnight on July 15, 2017, when Noor and his partner, Officer Matthew Harrity, responded to a 911 call placed by Damond, who reported what sounded like a possible sexual assault near her home. At the time of the shooting, Noor and Harrity were parked in the alley behind Damond’s 51st & Washburn home with their headlights off. Harrity was behind the wheel of their police SUV.

Although Noor never agreed to speak with investigators about the incident, Harrity said they were “spooked” by a sound as Damond approached. Noor reached across his partner to fire at Damond out the driver’s side window, striking her in the torso. She died at the scene.

Noor was fired from the department after charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter were announced in March 2018. Prosecutors added a third charge, second-degree murder, in December.

Noor’s defense attorneys asked Quaintance to sever the most serious charge their client faces from the two other charges so that they would not have to “defend against multiple theories of prosecution” during the trial. They argued the tactics used to defend Noor against one count could unfairly be used against him on another.

Noor’s defense attorneys objected to prosecutors’ plan to submit evidence from a May 2017 traffic stop in which Noor un-holstered his weapon and pointed it at the driver. Noor and his partner maintained that they suspect the driver of trying to hide contraband because of his erratic movements, but ultimately the driver was released after being ticketed for failing to signal.

Defense attorneys also objected to potential testimony that a police sergeant suggested Noor find a safe place to stay until media coverage of the shooting settled down, arguing it was “not relevant and highly prejudicial” and that many people expressed concern for the safety of Noor and his family after the shooting.

Noor’s defense attorney’s told Quaintance the use of a “fly through” illustration of the scene of the shooting would prejudice the jury by creating an “unrealistic picture of what was visible” on the night of the shooting. They also asked that prosecutors share the “spark of life” evidence they plan to submit during trial, evidence that will be used to give the jury a sense of Damond’s life and personality.

They requested that Quaintance raise the number of pre-emptory challenges allowed during jury selection to 15 from five, giving the defense team more opportunities to reject potential jurors. They also requested for all jurors to be shown a video on unconscious biases, including those related to race, sex, cultural or religious differences; Noor is Somali-American.

Filings by prosecutors indicate they plan to submit evidence from another call Noor and Harrity responded to near Damond’s home less than two hours before the shooting.

At about 9:15 p.m. that night, a 911 caller requested a welfare check on an elderly woman who appeared confused and was walking with packed bags toward a bus stop at 48th & Xerxes. The pair of officers responded but didn’t locate her.

In a memorandum filed in the case, prosecutors argue the call is “intrinsically linked” with events later in the night — that two calls to the same area regarding women potentially in distress discredit defense arguments that Noor, when he fired his weapon, acted appropriately in response to his perception of a real threat. Prosecutors plan to argue he was reckless.

Although he has invoked his Fifth Amendment right to silence, Noor apparently gave his version of events in late December to defense investigator William O’Keefe and Emanuel Kapelsohn, who appears on the list of expert witnesses submitted by the defense. Prosecutors asked Quaintance not to allow either to discuss Noor’s story until after Noor testifies.

Prosecutors also objected to the use of Kapelsohn, a firearms instructor who is frequently called upon to testify in defense of law enforcement officers facing trial after an on-duty shooting. They argued Kapelsohn shouldn’t be allowed to testify because he has never actually worked as a police officer and lacks “practical knowledge” of a working officer’s perspective, adding that his past testimony has focused on the subjective experience the officer on trial, not the objective standard of a what a “reasonable” officer would do in a similar scenario, potentially misleading jurors about which standard to apply.

Kapelsohn, who studied law, is described as “an active reserve deputy sheriff” on the website of his company, The Peregrine Corportation. Defense attorneys also plan to call as an expert witness Matthew Guller, a managing partner at The Institute for Forensic Pscychology, a New Jersey firm that provides psychological evaluation services for police agencies.

Noor’s defense attorneys meanwhile objected to the use of potential expert witness for the prosecution Dr. Tricia Lynn Aiken, a psychologist who was asked to review Noor’s pre-employment personality evaluation. She is one of 29 expert witnesses on a list submitted by prosecutors.

Defense attorneys had previously argued that the test used by the Minneapolis Police Department is outdated and has a known racial bias. Obtained by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension on a search warrant, the test results showed Noor was “likely to be asocial and socially introverted” and that his lack of interest in interacting with others was “very uncommon” among police officer candidates.

Also filed in February was a questionnaire that will be used to evaluate potential jurors. In addition to questions about jurors’ personal lives, education, and occupation, questions cover past military service, the use of firearms, whether another person has ever died as a result of the potential juror’s conduct and perceptions of Somali-Americans.