Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor's trial ends in rare cop conviction

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

Mohamed Noor did not look back at his family when his verdict was read in court. As the judge confirmed the verdict with the jurors one by one, Noor, 33, remained still in his chair, staring down at his hands folded together.

Noor had choked up a few times when he'd unexpectedly taken the witness stand the week before. Apart from those moments, Noor rarely displayed emotion as the court determined if the Minneapolis Police Officer was guilty in the death of Justine Rusczcyk, who'd called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her house.

After about 10 hours of sequestered deliberation, jurors filed into the courtroom, avoiding eye contact with the defendant. They'd found Noor not guilty of second-degree murder, the most severe charge against him, but ruled he was guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Noor remained stoic and isolated as he was handcuffed and escorted out of the courtroom to be processed at the Hennepin County Jail.

As the verdict was read, both Don Damond, Ruszczyk’s fiancé, and Noor's wife appeared overcome with emotion.

His attorney moved that Noor be allowed to remain out of custody until his sentencing on June 7, but Judge Kathryn Quaintance denied the request, citing the severity of the crimes. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said the third-degree murder conviction could lead to a sentence of more than 12 years in prison.

Noor is the first officer to be convicted of murder or manslaughter for an on-duty shooting in Minnesota in recent memory, according to Freeman. Even charging an officer who killed a civilian is a rarity across the United States.

These charges stemmed from the time Noor and his partner pulled into an alley in one of Minneapolis' safest, most affluent neighborhoods on a hot summer night in 2017. Noor and officer Matthew Harrity were responding to an “unknown trouble” call close to midnight. The dispatch screen in their squad car read "woman screaming behind building."

Harrity testified: “It felt like a call we had been on before, and we knew what to do."

With the lights off and radio turned down, Harrity, the  driver, crept into an alley off 51st Street, occasionally using the spotlight to check for possible threats. The only thing Harrity heard was a dog barking.

As they approached the end of the alley, Harrity turned the squad car headlights back on, and prepared to move on to the next call. Harrity says a “sixth sense” told him something was approaching, and he caught a glimpse of a silhouette out of the corner of his eye.

Something hit the car, Harrity testified, and he reached for his gun. His mind went “straight to [that] this could be a possible ambush,” he testified.

Noor testified he'd seen Harrity reach for his gun and fumble to get his weapon from his holster. As this was happening, Noor said he put his arm across Harrity’s chest to keep him safe and fired one shot out of the driver's side window.

Harrity described Noor's close-range gunshot as sounding liike “like a light bulb hitting the floor." He assessed the damage: “I’m okay. Noor’s okay. Who’s not okay?”

By the time Harrity looked out the window, Ruszczyk was backing away from the squad car holding her left abdomen saying, “I’m dead” or “I’m dying." 

“She just came out of nowhere,” Harrity told other officers at the scene that night. “We both got spooked. I pulled out, and Noor pulled out and fired.” Fellow officers discouraged Noor from giving his version of events, and his testimony last Thursday was the first time he'd gone on record about  killing Ruszczyk.

The prosecution pushed heavily on the notion Noor was startled by a woman in an alley when he and Harrity were, in fact, responding to a call about a woman in the alley. Whether Ruszczyk slapped the car or approached it aggressively won't be known, because all body camera footage starts after Noor fired his gun.

The prosecution highlighted the inconsistent (or non-existent) use of body-worn cameras, and made points about a botched investigation with elements of a cover- up.

Members of Ruszczyk's family plugged their ears or buried their heads in their hands as graphic footage of her last breaths and moments played in court. The prosecution argued the sporadic activation of cameras was evidence police were protecting one of their own, and that officers knowingly turned the cameras off when discussing the shooting among each other.

Some responding officers activated their cameras when driving to the scene but shut them off when they arrived. Other body cameras were turned off at the scene as officers discussed the night's events with each other. 

MPD Chief Medaria Arradondo testified he would have expected officers to have their body cameras activated at the scene.

Peter Wold, one of Noor’s defense attorneys, asked Arradondo about a policy in place at the time giving cops discretion to turn cameras off when talking to each other. Arradondo said that policy was more referring to officers talking privately at lunch, and not responding to a crime scene.

Prosecutors maintained the idea that Noor and Harrity heard a loud noise was a concept developed days after the shooting to help justify Noor’s deadly use of force.

“There were no clues at the scene to indicate to officers that there was justification for the shooting,” Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy said during closing arguments. The lack of clues, coupled with the confusion, led to silence, and in that silence, Sweasy says the “theory of the slap” developed.

Harrity first mentioned hearing a loud noise three days later, during an interview with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Harrity testified he'd been “trained not to give a statement about an officer-involved shooting until three days after.”

Arradondo also testified that the term "slap" was not mentioned to him until days after the shooting. 

Noor, for his part, stuck closely to the phrase, “I made a split-second decision to protect my partner.” Sweasy accused Noor of being a “practiced” witness, and that he seemed to be on a “loop.”

Mere months before the shooting, Noor had pulled a gun on a driver in a routine traffic stop and aimed it at their head, according to pre-trial filings submitted by prosecutors. That driver was later cited for "failure to signal." 

Sgt. Shannon Barnette, the commanding officer at the scene, testified that she did not tell BCA agents about a slap on the car the night of the shooting. Barnette’s account was disputed by BCA Special Agent Christopher Olson, who said he believes Barnette was the first to mention it that night.

The defense’s argument rested on the jury believing officer Noor feared for his life in the moments he decided to fire his weapon. Harrity told the BCA the slap “scared me as much as I could ever be scared." At trial, Harrity testified he didn't  have enough information at the time Noor shot to use deadly force.

Ruszczyk's fingerprints weren't found on the squad car, though a BCA examiner was unable to definitively say she didn’t touch it. Two of Ruszczyk’s neighbors described hearing loud noises prior to a gunshot; one thought a trash can had been knocked over, and the other thought they heard “a poor man's fireworks."

Two expert law-enforcement witnesses called by the prosecution testified that whether Ruszczyk slapped the car or not does not justify the use of deadly force by Noor. Both said that it is common for civilians to approach police cars, and that cops should be able to handle it without having to use deadly force. In Noor's situation, they testified, the use of any force, deadly or not, would have been excessive.

The prosecution tried to question MPD officer Ty Jindra about a meeting police union members attended in the basement of the Hennepin County Government Center. Attorneys floated the idea that the meeting of some 20 MPD cops was called to discuss withholding information from the investigation into Noor.

Judge Quaintance relieved the jury for a break, and in its absence accused the prosecution of putting forth a conspiracy about a coordinated effort to stifle the investigation. Quaintance also suggested there was a “political situation” between MPD and the County Attorney’s Office, which assistant county attorney Patrick Lofton pointedly denied.

Following the verdict, both Don Damond and Justine’s father, John Ruszczyk, expressed satisfaction with the outcome. Ruszczyk said the verdict shows the community's commitment to “the rule of law, the respect for the sanctity of life, and the obligation of the police force to serve and protect,” and hopes it might be a “catalyst for further change.”

Don Damond pointed out the emblem of the Minneapolis Police Department “ironically” reads, “To protect with courage and serve with compassion." Ruszczyk's shooting showed a “tragic lapse of care and complete disregard for the sanctity of life," her fiance said.

He called the case an “egregious failure” by the department, and encouraged Mayor Jacob Frey and Chief Arradondo to do everything they can to ensure the words on the emblems are not just words, “but are lived values of every person in a police department.”

Damond remembered Ruszczyk, whom he'd become engaged to soon after they met on a yoga retreat, as a “living example of compassion," saying she "lived to teach us about love." 

Damond added: "She committed to transform humanity. And her legacy is continuing that work today.”