Minnesota Appeals Court Upholds Cop’s Conviction for Killing 911 Caller

A ruling affirming the conviction of Mohamed Noor for the 2017 murder of a woman who called 911 to report a possible rape could impact the ongoing case against officers charged in the death of George Floyd.

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor leaves the Hennepin County Government Center after the first day of his murder trial in April 2019. (Evan Frost/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — A Minnesota appeals court on Monday upheld the third-degree murder conviction of a Minneapolis police officer who fatally shot an unarmed Australian woman in 2017 while responding to her 911 call.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals found that evidence presented at Mohamed Noor’s 2019 trial was sufficient to prove that the use of deadly force against Justine Ruszczyk Damond was unjustified.

Noor and partner Matthew Harrity were on patrol on July 15, 2017, when they responded to a 911 call from Damond, in which she reported possibly sexual assault after hearing a woman screaming behind a building in her south Minneapolis neighborhood.

Damond, a 40-year-old dual Australian-American citizen who had been living in the U.S. for more than two years, approached the officers’ squad car and Noor shot her from inside the car. She died at the scene.

Judges Michelle Larkin, Louise Bjorkman and Matthew Johnson heard the case on appeal. All three agreed that the state had sufficiently proven that Noor’s use of deadly force was not authorized by state law, that his right to a public trial and due process had not been violated, and that the admission of two of the state’s expert witnesses was not an abuse of discretion.

Larkin and Bjorkman further found that the evidence presented was enough to support a guilty verdict for third-degree murder, which in Minnesota requires that a killing be “perpetrated by an effect eminently dangerous to others, and evincing a depraved mind, regardless of human life.”

Noor’s attorneys had argued that he had endangered only one other person – Damond – and had therefore not met the “depraved-mind” standard.

The majority found, however, that another phrase, “without intent to effect the death of any person,” was the central element distinguishing third-degree murder from second-degree murder, and that third-degree murder did not require that more than one person be put in danger by a defendant’s conduct.

A woman plays the didgeridoo during a memorial service for Justine Damond in Minneapolis in August 2017. (Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via AP, File)

Johnson penned a dissent, arguing that recklessness alone did not evince a depraved mind and that standard was created to cover “killings that are committed with a general malice but not killings that are committed with a particular malice for the intended victim or with mere culpable negligence.”

“Noor was not intoxicated. He was not angry. He was not ‘inflamed by emotions, disappointments and hurt’ to such degree that he ceased ‘to care for human life and safety,’” Johnson wrote. “He did not engage in conduct that endangered anyone other than the particular person whom he targeted. There is no evidence concerning any depravity of mind either before the shooting, when Noor and Officer Harrity were driving slowly and quietly through the alley, or after the shooting, when Noor assisted with life-saving measures on Ruszczyk.”

Noor’s June 2019 conviction carried a 150-month prison sentence. At the time, he was one of only four officers convicted of murder in the United States since 2005, and the fact that he was a Black officer convicted for shooting a white woman has been a talking point for many local racial-justice activists.

At the time of the shooting, Black Lives Matter activists had led protests of the police killings of Jamar Clark in 2015 and of Philando Castile in neighboring Falcon Heights in 2016, neither of which netted convictions.

Some segments of Minneapolis’ large Somali community rallied behind Noor during his trial, saying that he was treated unfairly in comparison to his white colleagues.

The Court of Appeals’ decision could also impact another high-profile murder trial involving the Minneapolis Police Department. Former officer Derek Chauvin, who faces a second-degree murder charge in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd, was initially charged with third-degree murder using similar criteria to those used to convict Noor. That charge was dismissed, however, on the grounds that the conduct alleged to cause Floyd’s death– the knee Chauvin placed on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes– was not “eminently dangerous” to anyone other than Floyd.

The decision that Noor’s conduct – also only “eminently dangerous” to Damond – was enough to support a third-degree murder conviction means that prosecutors could bring the charge against Chauvin again, said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“The defendant certainly should, and almost certainly will, appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court… with a published opinion, 2-1, they’d almost be crazy not to appeal,” Sampsell-Jones said of Noor’s case.

He said if the ruling stands, it would allow prosecutors to reinstate the third-degree murder charges in the Chauvin case.

“Whether [they] would want to strategically is another question,” he said.

Sampsell-Jones argued that the common-law origins of Minnesota’s homicide statutes create unnecessary confusion, leading to recent state Supreme Court precedents that make dangerous actions directed at individuals ineligible for third-degree convictions.

“That really makes no sense. The murder statute was originally meant to cover all kinds of reckless conduct,” he said, pointing out that the precedent is often used to force defendants seeking to plead out to take second-degree charges rather than third-degree charges.

“This is not something the Minnesota Supreme Court is going to want to weigh into, given the political stakes, but nevertheless they should,” he added.

Noor’s legal team said they were disappointed in Monday’s ruling and will appeal to the state’s top court.

“We respectfully disagree with the majority’s opinion published today in Mr. Noor’s appeal,” they said. “The split decision, while disappointing, is not entirely disheartening. The dissenting opinion raises compelling issues. In the coming weeks, we will ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to review this important matter.”

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office, which led the prosecution in the case against Noor, celebrated the ruling in a statement.

“Successful prosecutions of police officers’ unlawful use of deadly force are rare in the United States. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office charged this case because of Officer Noor’s outrageous conduct,” it said. “We were criticized for bringing that charge. But our prosecutors did remarkable work and the jury agreed and found him guilty. Now the Minnesota Court of Appeals has supported our legal theory as well.”

A spokesman for Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office was brief in his comment.

“We’re studying the opinion and its potential impact on the case,” he said in an email, referencing the case against Chauvin and co-defendants Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane.

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