The fate of Mohamed Noor’s third-degree murder conviction could have an impact on other high-profile Minnesota cases.
ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — The Minnesota Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in the case of Mohamed Noor, a former Minneapolis police officer convicted of third-degree murder for the 2017 killing of an Australian woman who called 911 to report a possible sexual assault.
Noor is the first police officer in Minnesota history to be convicted of murder for an on-duty killing, but Wednesday’s arguments didn’t focus on whether his conduct was justified.
Instead, attorneys Caitlinrose Fisher of the Minneapolis firm Forsgren Fisher McCalmont DeMarea Tysver and Jean Burdorf of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office presented competing takes on the state high court’s longstanding holding that third-degree “depraved-mind” murder requires that a defendant’s dangerous conduct endanger more than one person.
Noor shot and killed Justine Ruszczyk Damond, an Australian and U.S. dual citizen and Minneapolis resident, in 2017 after she called police about a suspected sexual assault behind her house. He and partner Matthew Harrity testified that they were surprised when Damond knocked on the rear passenger-side window of their squad car, and Noor shot Damond through the window, killing her. He was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and third-degree murder in 2019 and sentenced to over 12 years in prison.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals narrowly upheld Noor’s conviction in February, with a 2-1 majority discounting the so-called particular-person requirement of third-degree murder.
Fisher, representing Noor, said that while the jury may have found Noor’s shooting of Damond to be criminally reckless, the third-degree murder charge shouldn’t stick.
“Mr. Noor did not act with a depraved-mind mental state,” Fisher argued. “A defendant is not guilty of depraved-mind murder simply by acting recklessly.”
She also defended the historical backing of the particular-person rule, tracing it back to Minnesota’s cribbing of New York’s murder statutes before it gained statehood. She asked the court to uphold a century-long tradition of interpreting the statute’s requirement that a defendant “causes the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind” as narrowly as possible.
“I think it makes sense that the category of crime that we define as murder, even though they are unintentional deaths, is narrow,” she said.
Burdorf, meanwhile, said Fisher’s interpretation involved leaps that aren’t in the language of the statute.
“There is nothing in Minnesota statute that says a person must act indiscriminately or that their actions cannot be aimed at someone in particular. The language simply isn’t there,” she said.
She also gave examples of third-degree murder convictions that didn’t endanger more than one person, including a case in which the victim died in a game of Russian Roulette and another in which a man threw a beer at his wife, who was holding an oil lamp.
Burdorf further argued that precluding murder convictions for acts targeted toward specific individuals effectively downgraded the consequences of dangerous, targeted conduct. “Their argument is that if the defendant directs their behavior towards a particular person, that is somehow less severe,” she said of Noor’s attorneys.
Fisher, meanwhile, said taking the state’s position would make murder convictions far too accessible. Should the court adopt that, she asked, “what death that is directed at a particular person would not cross the line from manslaughter to murder?”
Members of the seven-justice panel, appearing via Zoom, expressed wariness of overturning the court’s longtime holding but also acknowledged a “hole” the particular-person rule appeared to create in Minnesota’s murder laws.
“You’re correct that we held there that general recklessness is not sufficient to prove third-degree murder, but I wonder, though — you seem to take the position that we not consider the risk of death at all,” Justice Natalie Hudson asked of Fisher, pointing to one of her caselaw citations.
“Our state just simply hasn’t developed a test that looks at risk alone,” Fisher replied. “We do care about the defendant’s mental state, and the risk to human life, and the conduct.”
“What does it mean to act without regard for human life? It’s different than acting with intent,” she continued. “And I don’t think we can focus on risk alone.”
Justice Margaret Chutich, meanwhile, told Burdorf that while she saw the state’s point, the existing precedent presented a major hurdle to any changes.
“Although I understand your statutory argument, and have sympathy for it… it seems this court has put a gloss over third-degree murder that I don’t know if we can escape,” she said.
“You can always escape,” Burdorf replied. “We have this confusion, I think it exists and we have to acknowledge it.” She advocated that the court “go back to the fundamentals” and examine the language of the statute as it was originally presented.
Noor’s case played a pivotal role in the case against his onetime colleague Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in April for the killing of George Floyd. Chauvin was initially only charged with third-degree murder by Freeman’s office. Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office took on the case against the officer shortly afterward, adding second-degree murder to his charges.
The third-degree charge was briefly dismissed by Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill, who said that Chauvin’s kneeling on Floyd’s neck only endangered Floyd. The Court of Appeals’ decision in Noor launched an appellate court battle over whether Chauvin’s third-degree charge should be reinstated. It ultimately was, but Chauvin’s eventual conviction of second-degree murder dampened the Noor case’s impact; at his upcoming sentencing on June 25, Chauvin will be sentenced based on the highest convicted offense, second-degree murder.
A decision in Noor could also bear on the case against former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter, who faces a manslaughter charge for shooting 19-year-old Daunte Wright in April. Activists have pushed for tougher charges against Potter, but prosecutors have declined to do so, sometimes citing the particular-person rule.
Battles over policing in Minneapolis have been ongoing since Chauvin’s conviction, with protesters taking to the streets once again after the killing of Winston Smith, a Black man, by local sheriff’s deputies serving on a federal task force led by the U.S. Marshals Service.
Authorities claim that Smith fired a gun from his vehicle as the task force tried to arrest him on a felon-in-possession warrant, and that there is no body-camera footage of the event. Activists have led nightly protests near the site of Smith’s June 3 death, pointing to early reports that Floyd died in a “medical incident” as evidence for what they say is a history of outright lies from law enforcement when it comes to the deaths of Black people.