Officer charged with murder in fatal shooting of Justine Damond

Officer Mohamed Noor has turned himself in on murder and manslaughter charges related to the July shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond

By Libor Jany
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

MINNEAPOLIS — Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor was charged Tuesday with murder and manslaughter in the July shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.

Noor is charged with third-degree murder “perpetrating eminently dangerous act and evincing depraved mind” and second-degree manslaughter, “culpable negligence creating unreasonable risk” in the shooting, which drew international attention and led to the ouster of Police Chief Janee Harteau.

In this May 2016 image provided by the City of Minneapolis, police officer Mohamed Noor poses for a photo at a community event welcoming him to the Minneapolis police force. (City of Minneapolis via AP)
In this May 2016 image provided by the City of Minneapolis, police officer Mohamed Noor poses for a photo at a community event welcoming him to the Minneapolis police force. (City of Minneapolis via AP)

“A person sitting in a passenger seat of a squad car takes a gun, hears a noise, maybe sees some object … He reaches across in front of his partner, shoots a gun at an object that he can’t see. That’s evidence of a depraved mind in my view,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said at an afternoon news conference announcing the charges. While Freeman said he believes they have gathered enough evidence “as humanly possible” in the case, “We have a daunting task in front of us.”

Noor was booked into jail Tuesday before noon, according to jail records, on a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension warrant for third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Bail was set at $500,000, with Noor’s first court appearance likely scheduled for Wednesday.

Damond, 40, a native of Australia, was shot and killed July 15 after calling police to report a possible assault behind her south Minneapolis home. Noor was in the passenger seat and fired across his partner, Matthew Harrity, killing Damond.

Freeman said he would decide whether to charge Noor in Damond’s death, but convened a grand jury to gather additional evidence. Freeman said he convened the grand jury because several Minneapolis police officers refused to cooperate with the investigation into Damond’s death.

“I’ve been privileged to have this job nearly 18 years and I’ve never had police officers who weren’t suspects refuse to do their duty and come talk to us,” Freeman said.

“These are hard jobs and tough questions. The police patrol, investigate and present us cases, we evaluate those cases and have to make the charging decision and do the prosecution,” he said. “There’s going to tension between those two roles but … we will not stop getting all the evidence even if we have to ruffle some feathers.”

Charges in the case unsealed Tuesday afternoon are consistent with initial information released by BCA investigators — that Harrity heard a sound coming from behind the vehicle before Noor fired, striking Damond. They reveal more details as to what happened that night:

Harrity and Noor arrived to the alley behind Damond’s home at 50th and Xerxes avenues. Their headlights were off and the computer screen dimmed, but the spotlight was on. Harrity, who was not wearing his seat belt, removed the safety hood of his holster over his gun before turning into the alley. Harrity said he heard what he believed to be a dog before reaching the rear of Damond’s home at 5024 Washburn Ave. but did not get out of the car to investigate. He did not hear other noises. The squad car slowed to 2 miles per hour but never stopped.

As the squad neared the end of the alley at 51st Street, nearly two minutes after arriving, Noor entered “Code 4” into the squad computer, indicating they were safe and needed no assistance.

Neither officer’s camera was on at the time of the shooting, but both turned them on immediately afterward. Harrity began CPR, with Noor taking over afterward. Paramedics arrived at 11:49 p.m. but Damond died at the scene of a gunshot wound to the abdomen.

While Noor has declined to give a statement, Harrity later said that before the shooting he and Noor had cleared the call and were at the end of the alley waiting for a bicyclist to pass. Harrity had replaced the safety hood on his holster, and Noor had cleared the call on the computer.

Five to 10 seconds later, Harrity heard a voice, a thump somewhere behind him on the squad car, “and caught a glimpse of a person’s head and shoulders outside his window.”

Charges said he was not able to articulate what the noise was, how loud it was, what the person’s voice sounded like, or what the person said. He characterized it as “a muffled voice or a whisper.” He estimated the person was 2 feet away and he couldn’t see their hands, or weapons.

“Officer Harrity said he was startled and said ‘Oh s--t or Oh Jesus.’ He said he perceived that his life was in danger, reached for his gun, unholstered it, and held it to his rib cage while pointing it downward. He said from the driver’s seat he had a better vantage point to determine a threat than Officer Noor would have had from the passenger seat.”

Harrity then heard a sound “that sounded like a light bulb dropping on the floor and saw a flash.” After first checking to see whether he had been shot, he looked to his right and saw Noor with his right arm extended toward Harrity but did not see a gun. He then looked out of his window and saw Damond, “who put her hands on a gunshot wound on the left side of her abdomen and said ‘I’m dying’ or ‘I’m dead.’ ” charges said.

“Officer Harrity said that once he saw the woman’s hands he believed her to no longer be a threat and he got out of the squad car.”

Noor got out still armed and Harrity told him to reholster his gun and turn his body camera on.

“There is no evidence that … Officer Noor encountered, appreciated, investigated or confirmed a threat that justified the decision to use deadly force,” charges said. “Instead, Officer Noor recklessly and intentionally fired his handgun from the passenger seat, a location at which he would have been less able than Officer Harrity to see and hear events on the other side of the squad car.”

Damond’s fiance, Don Damond, and his family, along with Damond’s father, John Ruszczyk, and the Ruszczyk family, applauded the charges in a joint statement, calling it “one step toward justice for this iniquitous act.” Justine Damond had already started using the last name of her fiance at the time of the shooting.

“While we waited over eight months to come to this point, we are pleased with the way a grand jury and County Attorney Mike Freeman appear to have been diligent and thorough in investigating and ultimately determining that these charges are justified,” the joint statement said. “We remain hopeful that a strong case will be presented by the prosecutor, backed by verified and detailed forensic evidence, and that this will lead to a conviction. No charges can bring our Justine back. However, justice demands accountability for those responsible for recklessly killing the fellow citizens they are sworn to protect, and today’s actions reflect that.”

Shortly after the charges were announced, Harteau tweeted that Noor’s actions were his own and shouldn’t reflect on the good work of other officers.

“Justine Damond’s family deserves answers and they deserve justice,” she posted from her personal account. “As I originally stated Justine didn’t have to die.”

News of the charges met a mixed reaction among longtime department observers.

Jess Sundin said that Freeman’s decision signaled a new willingness to charge officers involved in shootings, while adding that only with Noor’s conviction will true accountability occur. Sundin is an organizer for Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar, a coalition is named for Jamar Clark, who was shot and killed during a struggle with two Minneapolis police officers in 2014. The officers were not charged.

“My hope would be that first we see a serious prosecution, we don’t see the case mishandled, and that Justine Damond and her family get justice through the criminal justice system,” she said.

A message left for the union that represents the city’s roughly 880 rank-and-file officers went unreturned Tuesday morning, and department officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Tuesday, residents in the quiet Fulton neighborhood where the shooting happened welcomed the charges.

Ryan Masterson, a neighbor who lives directly across from the alley where Damond died, stopped to place yellow daisies at the memorial that he’s helped maintain over the past eight months.

Damond’s death helped strength the community, he said. He applauded Freeman’s decision to charge Noor as the beginning of a long awaited resolution: “The family will finally get some answers. There’s a calming peace brought today,” he said. “This is where I wanted to be.”

He’s hopeful Noor’s arrest will ultimately lead to a conviction.

“I’ve had countless sleepless nights,” said Masterson, who admits he’s not yet had time to grieve. “From my bedroom I can look out and see the activity (at the memorial.)”

©2018 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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