Noor pleads not guilty

Former Minneapolis police officer appeared at a pre-trial hearing Friday

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

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor officially pleaded not guilty Friday to murder and manslaughter charges stemming from a July 2017 on-duty shooting.

Noor is charged in the death of Justine Damond, a 40-year-old native of Australia also known as Justine Ruszczyk, who had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault near her home. At the time of her death, she was living with her fiancé, Don Damond, in the Fulton neighborhood.

Rulings issued by Hennepin County District Court Judge Kathryn Quaintance at the pre-trial hearing struck down prosecutors’ plan to introduce character evidence drawn from Noor’s work history and limited their ability to discuss a pre-employment psychological evaluation of the former officer in a trial scheduled to begin April 1.

Prosecutors intend to argue Noor acted recklessly when he fired his weapon at Damond as she approached his police vehicle in the alley behind her home, and a jury will be tasked with deciding whether Noor acted in an objectively reasonable manner.

Quaintance denied a defense motion to sever the most serious charge Noor faces, second-degree murder, from two other felony charges, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, explaining that there was “sufficient overlap” in the evidence, witnesses and facts underlying all three charges to bundle them together. She also denied a request from defense attorneys that potential jurors be shown a 15-minute video on unconscious biases, including those related to race and religious differences; Noor is Somali-American.

Quaintance pledged to “be liberal” in allowing an examination of jurors’ potential biases during jury selection. But she said the 17-page questionnaire jurors would be asked to complete went far enough toward being “conscientious” about bias without adding the video.

Prosecutors from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office argued the video would needlessly add tension to the case.

Prosecutors aimed to point out in their arguments during trial that Noor declined to give an on-the-record description of the shooting, turning down an interview with investigators from the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. But Quaintance ruled prosecutors would not be allowed introduce evidence of Noor’s pre-arrest silence unless he takes the stand in his own defense, adding, “It seems to me the right not to incriminate one’s self is a pretty seminal constitutional right.”

She said her ruling could change as the trial progresses and new evidence comes in.

Quaintance also rejected prosecutors’ plan to discuss three prior on-duty incidents, one in which Noor pointed his weapon at a driver during a traffic stop; another in which Noor, while still in training, allegedly avoided taking calls for service; and a third in which he allegedly did not search for a burglary suspect when he said he would. Prosecutors previously described the incidents as “prior acts of recklessness and indifference.”

Quaintance said the incidents were not relevant to the essential question for jurors: whether Noor acted as a reasonable officer would have in the same situation.

But she did agree to allow prosecutors to discuss another incident that took place less than two hours before the shooting, when Noor and his partner, Officer Matthew Harrity, were called to check on a woman possibly suffering from dementia symptoms just a few blocks from Damond’s home.

“That is intrinsic evidence,” Quaintance said, adding that it added context to what happened on the night of the shooting and gives insight into Noor’s state of mind when he pulled the trigger.

Prosecutors also planned to introduce as evidence the results of Noor’s pre-employment psychological evaluation. They have described the results in filings as revealing a strikingly anti-social attitude for a law enforcement officer, and they aimed to have a psychologist testify on the results as an expert witness.

Quaintance said she would likely not allow the test results to enter the trial, but added she could change her mind if and when Noor testifies. She noted the results were already two-and-a-half years old and acknowledged an argument made by defense attorneys, who in filings claimed there was evidence showing the test was biased against minority law enforcement candidates.

Noor did not speak during the hearing and faced forward almost the entire time he was in the courtroom.

Wearing a navy blue suit, white shirt and blue-and-silver striped tie, he entered the courtroom with his attorneys about 20 minutes before the hearing. The courtroom, previously filled with chatter, grew hushed.

Don Damond entered about five minutes later, wearing glasses and dressed in a gray shirt with the collar unbuttoned. He took a seat in the front row of the gallery.

The final open seats in the gallery filled shortly before Quaintance entered. The hearing started promptly at 9 a.m.

After four of the attorneys introduced themselves — Assistant Hennepin County attorneys Amy Sweasy and Patrick Lofton for the prosecution and defense attorneys Tom Plunkett and Peter Wold — Quaintance noted Noor had not yet entered a plea to the charges against him, which were amended late last year to include the second-degree murder charge.

“We can inform the court Mr. Noor is entering a plea of not guilty,” Plunkett said, forcefully emphasizing the last two words.

There was a high security presence outside of Quaintance’s courtroom on the 19th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center. Members of the public and media were required to hand over all electronics and pass through a scanner, even though they’d already walked through a metal detector on the building’s first floor.

Quaintance decided in February that no cameras or recording devices would be allowed in the courtroom during the trial, terms to which both attorneys for the defense and prosecution agreed.

A line for seating in the courtroom formed more than an hour before the hearing began. While friends and family members of both Damond and Noor, a sketch artist and select members of the media had reserved seats, just 11 of the 30 seats in the courtroom were open on a first-come, first-served basis; latecomers were directed to overflow seating in a different courtroom.

Several issues were still unresolved when the pre-trial hearing ended after 35 minutes, including whether or not Noor’s defense attorneys would be allowed to call one of their expert witnesses on police use of force.

In court filings, defense attorneys argued that the expert witness, firearms instructor Emanuel Kapelsohn, was never a law enforcement officer and lacked “practical knowledge” of police work. They also depicted him as biased, pointing out his long record of testifying on behalf of officers in on-duty shooting cases.

Quaintance said both sides would be allowed to cross-examine Kapelsohn in another hearing before the trial starts.

Quaintance also requested more information from prosecutors about a “fly-through” animation of the shooting scene they plan to introduce during trial, which defense attorneys had argued would paint an unrealistic picture of what Noor could have seen. The video is based on evidence collected by BCA investigators at the scene, Sweasy said.