Former officer to plead not guilty in Justine Damond death

Mohamed Noor argued that he acted in self-defense when he fired the fatal shot from inside his police SUV


By Libor Jany
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

MINNEAPOLIS — Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor will plead not guilty in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, arguing that he acted in self-defense when he fired the fatal shot from inside his police SUV.

According to a Wednesday court filing signed by his attorneys Thomas Plunkett and Peter Wold, Noor intends to claim that he used "reasonable force" when he shot Damond should the case goes to trial.

Former Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor leaves the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility with his attorney, Thomas Plunkett, left, after posting bail Wednesday night, March 21, 2018, in Minneapolis. (Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via AP)
Former Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor leaves the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility with his attorney, Thomas Plunkett, left, after posting bail Wednesday night, March 21, 2018, in Minneapolis. (Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via AP)

The document did not elaborate further on his defense strategy but mentions that Noor's attorneys may call private investigator William O'Keefe to testify at trial. Noor's next hearing is scheduled for May 8.

Noor's lawyers also filed a motion for discovery, demanding the names of any potential prosecution witnesses and access to all evidence that might be used against him. Plunkett declined to comment Wednesday.

Noor was charged March 20 with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the July shooting death of Damond, 40, a spiritual healer from Australia. He was fired from the department on the same day charges were announced.

The case turned an international spotlight on police violence in the United States and led to the resignation of Janeé Harteau as chief.

Noor made his initial court appearance late last month and shortly afterward was released after posting $500,000 for conditional bail. He has been ordered to turn over his passport, surrender his firearms and ammunition and refrain from contacting his former partner, Matthew Harrity.

A police spokeswoman said Wednesday that department leaders would not be commenting on the case.

In filing the charges last month, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said that Noor, 32, acted "recklessly" when he fired the shot into the dark that killed Damond after she called 911 to report a suspected rape in her south Minneapolis neighborhood.

The shot came after Noor and Harrity had driven through the alley behind Damond's home, saw no suspicious activity and were preparing to leave when they were allegedly startled by someone outside the police SUV.

Harrity, the driver, told investigators he was "spooked," fearing for his life, and took his gun from its holster before Noor fired his weapon out the driver's side window. Neither officer's body camera was on at the time.

Local attorneys say it will be difficult for Freeman to secure a guilty verdict on the murder charge, given the lack of body camera footage and the fact that Noor has declined to speak with state investigators or a grand jury probing Damond's death. Noor is the second Minnesota officer in recent memory to be charged with an on-duty death and the first to be charged with murder.

Harrity was twice called before the grand jury, but it's unclear whether he offered testimony.

St. Paul attorney Paul Applebaum said that both filings were formalities in criminal cases.

Noor's legal team, he said, will likely ask a jury to consider the facts from the perspective of a reasonable officer, a legal standard established in the 1989 Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor, and a common defense in police shooting cases.

"Police officers get an extra layer of defense, beyond self-defense — they have a statute that provides them with another additional defense, that they can use an appropriate level of defense to protect themselves," said Applebaum.

Minneapolis attorney Mike Padden said that based on the available evidence, the shooting was a case of accidental discharge, making Noor's claim of self-defense mystifying.

"The problem is that they didn't have their body cameras activated, and they didn't have their dashcam activated, which then it creates the opportunity for creating a false narrative," he said. "I don't think for a minute that his gun going off was an intentional act — if he were shooting to kill, then he would've shot more than one round."

He added that observers might wonder: "If he accidentally shot her, then why he didn't say that?

"Well, if he says that, then he's guilty of some derivative of manslaughter," Padden said.

Applebaum said the defense will likely call a use-of-force expert to testify that because of their training, another officer facing similar circumstances might have reacted the same way.

He added that he was surprised that Noor's attorney didn't file a "defense of another" motion, which would claim he was not only trying to protect himself, but also his partner.

Damond's death was the third controversial police shooting in the Twin Cities in recent years — events that led to calls for greater police oversight, improved community relations and better training for officers. Last year, a jury found ex-St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez not guilty in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile during a July 2016 traffic stop.

The Damond shooting sent a shock wave from Minneapolis all the way to Damond's native Australia, horrifying many people there as a grim example of aggressive U.S. police behavior. It has also taken on racial overtones, with even some fervent police critics saying that the case has been handled differently than past officer-involved shootings. Noor is black, and Damond was white.

The union that represents the city's nearly 900 rank-and-file officers has said it is weighing whether to appeal his termination. A message left for its president, Lt. Bob Kroll, went unreturned Wednesday.

Noor can petition a third-party arbitrator to get his job back, as other officers fired for on-the-job conduct have done. But that path got more difficult last month, after the state appeals court ruled in favor of the city of Richfield in its efforts to fire a police officer after a video of him slapping a teenager went viral online.

The decision was hailed as a major victory in the movement to overhaul the state's decades-old arbitration system that the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association deemed "broken."

©2018 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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