UPDATED: 6:28 p.m. EDT, April 30 — A jury returned guilty verdicts on Tuesday for two of the three charges a Black former cop was facing in Minneapolis for shooting and killing an unarmed white woman. Mohamed Noor was found guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter and not guilty on second-degree murder charges for killing Justine Damond in July of 2017.
Noor has reportedly been taken into custody and sentencing will be June 7. He is the first police officer in Minnesota to be convicted of an on-duty shooting.
White officers have fatally shot unarmed Black people and avoided going to prison by claiming that they feared for their life during the encounter. Will that defense work for Mohamed Noor, a Black former officer who killed an unarmed white woman named Justine Ruszczyk Damond nearly two years ago?
Noor, a former Minneapolis officer, faces murder and manslaughter charges for the July 2017 shooting. He and his partner were in their patrol car in a dark alley when Noor said he feared for his life after hearing a sudden noise and seeing a silhouette.
After a three-day Easter weekend break, the trial continued on Monday. Jurors heard from the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) agent who initially oversaw the crime scene. The BCA is an independent agency that investigates fatal police shootings.
The agent’s testimony was expected to be instrumental for the prosecution’s argument that Noor fabricated a story about Ms. Damond slapping the squad car days after the shooting, MPR News reported. Noor claimed that he heard a sudden noise before firing.
Eric Knutson told jurors that another BCA agent–not a Minneapolis officer–told him at the crime scene that the squad car was slapped.
Prosecutor Patrick Lofton argued in court that a police sergeant talking to a BCA agent at the crime scene suggested that maybe the car was slapped.
Noor’s patrol partner Officer Matthew Harrity testified last week that the sudden noise startled him. However, he first mentioned the noise to investigators three days after the shooting, according to the prosecutor. Most other officers said they didn’t hear about a sudden noise when they showed up at the crime scene.
On Thursday, Harrity took the witness stand and testified that, like Noor, he too feared for his life when a shadowy figure suddenly appeared in the dark alley where they were sitting in their police squad car, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported. Unlike Noor, Harrity said he hesitated to shoot because he wasn’t immediately sure that deadly force was needed.
During his five-hour testimony, the prosecutor asked Harrity if he was able to determine whether the figure—which turned out to be Ms. Damond—was armed before Noor fired his gun.
“I didn’t analyze the threat fully yet,” he said. And Noor didn’t shout a warning before he fired, Harrity stated, admitting to the prosecutor that the use of deadly force was premature.
On Wednesday, a 17-year-old witness took the stand to tell jurors what he recalled from the shooting, MPR News reported.
The prosecution and defense, however, both had doubts about the accuracy of his recollection. He admitted to smoking marijuana and drinking four shots of whiskey on the night of the shooting. The teenager’s testimony was still considered important because he was the only bystander on the scene.
He said he was riding his bike to a friend’s house when he saw the squad vehicle at the end of an alley. The teen, who was 16 at the time, said he heard a gunshot and Ms. Damond fall to the ground. He pulled out his cellphone and started recording. According to him, Noor was pacing the driveway while his patrol partner went to Damond. However, he also admitted to previously contradicting his recollection of exactly what happened.
Jurors watched body camera footage from Harrity on March 16, KSTP-TV reported. It showed part of what happened after the shooting. Harrity is heard telling a sergeant “she just came out of nowhere.”
He continued, “I had my gun out and I didn’t fire and then Noor pulled out and fired.”
Also on Tuesday, Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Katherine Waite testified that she disapproved of how the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) handled the investigation. She was concerned that Ms. Damond’s body remained at the scene for too long. Waite believes that BCA should have impounded Noor’s squad car instead of examining it at the scene.
The prosecutor also attacked the credibility of Minneapolis police Sgt. Shannon Barnette. She arrived at the scene after the shooting to supervise the process. Barnette reportedly deactivated her body camera several times. Based on her recorded comments, she also appeared to side with Noor, the prosecutor argued.
Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo delivered testimony on April 15 that appeared to damage Noor’s defense. Arradondo said the first time he heard about a thump or some sort of noise startling the former officer was days after the shooting, MPR News reported.
Noor claimed that he heard a sudden sound while parked in the dark alley and impulsively fired toward Ms. Damond out fear that he and Harrity were getting ambushed.
The police chief also denied on the witness stand that there were any concerns that night about Noor and Harrity driving into a potential ambush situation.
Arradondo’s testimony was quite different from Minneapolis police Lt. Daniel May on April 12. May appeared to give a boost to the defense with his testimony that fear of being ambushed on duty was a constant concern of officers in the department, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.
As a defense strategy, Noor’s legal team wants to paint a picture of the ex-officer impulsively shooting at Ms. Damond in a dark alley out of the fear.
May testified that superiors addressed ambushes frequently with officers at roll call. He pointed to several instances, including the 2016 ambush in Dallas that killed five officers, as well as a 1992 killing of Minneapolis officer Jerry Haaf that impacted the precinct’s thinking about officer safety.
The prosecution called a Minneapolis police officer to the witness stand April 11 to testify against Noor, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported. Officer Scott Aikins arrived after the shooting and his body camera captured a chaotic scene in which emergency medical personnel tried but failed to revive Ms. Damond.
Someone is heard on the video saying that she no longer had a pulse. Medics pronounced dead approximately 25 seconds later.
Also on April 11, the head of the Minneapolis police homicide unit testified that lighting in the alley where Noor fired at Ms. Damond was bright enough to see her. Noor’s attorneys have argued that the lighting was too dim and contributed to the unfortunate shooting.
One day earlier, jurors heard Ms. Damond’s 911 calls in which she reported a possible sexual assault before the Minneapolis cop shot her, the Associated Press reported. Noor, 33, stands charged with murder and manslaughter.
Noor shot her in an alley behind her home in July 2017 when she approached the police SUV where Noor and his partner were seated. Noor’s attorney told the jurors in opening statements that he heard a sudden loud noise and fired, fearing a possible ambush. The lawyer noted that two weeks earlier a New York officer was ambushed and killed while sitting in his parked squad car.
White officers like Betty Shelby have used a similar defense successfully. She was charged with manslaughter in the September 2016 shooting death of Terence Crutcher, 40, during an encounter in Tulsa that began with the report of a stalled vehicle. Shelby said she feared for her life, even though Crutcher was unarmed and surrounded by several other police officers, and was acquitted.
Former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson also claimed that he feared for his life when he gunned down unarmed teenager Michael Brown in 2014. Cleveland officer Timothy Loehmann similarly said he feared for his life when he shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black child who was playing with a pellet gun in a park. Video showed Loehmann jumping out of his squad car and shooting the boy within seconds, giving no warning or orders. Nevertheless, another police department later hired Loehmann.
Unlike Noor, police officers are rarely indicted and face a jury.
The officer’s body cameras weren’t on and there isn’t a video of the shooting. In a statement released by the lawyer for the family of Ms. Damond, they 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.”