MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – The former partner of an ex-Minnesota police officer on trial for killing an unarmed Australian woman testified Thursday that the use of deadly force was premature in the circumstances they faced.
In a grueling two weeks of testimony from multiple police officers, first responders and other witnesses, jurors have heard details about the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
She was fatally shot by former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, 33. The Somali-American was charged with second-degree manslaughter and third-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty, claiming self-defense.
Damond was killed on July 15, 2017, when she approached Noor’s squad car after calling 911 to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her home 13 minutes before her death. At the time of her death, Damond was engaged to be married and worked as a life coach. The 40-year-old dual Australian-American citizen had been living in the U.S. for more than two years.
Matthew Harrity, who was Noor’s partner, took the stand Thursday and described the tension at the scene as he and Noor rolled down the alley in their police SUV with the headlights off in the middle of the night.
Harrity, the driver, used a spotlight as the pair tried to find any sign of a woman in trouble.
He described taking the safety off his holster in case he needed to pull out his gun.
When asked why, he said: “Every call, I consider a threat until it’s no longer a threat anymore.”
“I want to go home every night, so I’m going to do everything I can to go home to my family,” he added.
Harrity, appearing in uniform, testified that he then had a "weird feeling" to his left but couldn't make out what it was.
"At this time, I hear something hit the car and I also hear some sort of murmur," he said. He said he was startled by the thump and his mind went straight to a possible ambush.
He immediately drew his gun and held it to his ribs pointing downward, he said. Under cross-examination from Noor’s defense attorney Peter Wold, Harrity acknowledged he was scared.
Harrity said that as he tried to make sense of what was happening, he heard a pop, saw a flash, and looked over to see Noor had fired his gun. Noor had fired across Harrity and through the driver's side window.
Prosecutor Amy Sweasy seized on Harrity's restraint, asking him about his training in the reasonable use of deadly force. Prosecutors need to prove Noor acted unreasonably when he shot Damond.
Under questioning from Sweasy, Harrity said that he would need to identify a threat and a target before firing his weapon. Harrity conceded that an officer would not point a gun unless he intended to use it, and said deadly force can be used only under reasonable circumstances.
"Use of deadly force, from your viewpoint at this point, would have been premature," Sweasy said of the situation.
"Yes, with what I had," Harrity replied.
Harrity also faced tough questions about what he told investigators in the moments right after the shooting. Prosecutors have questioned the defense narrative of a thump on the squad car, saying investigators found no forensic evidence that Damond touched it.
Harrity acknowledged Thursday that he didn't mention the thump to anyone that night, but said that was because only a brief statement was required and he knew he would be making a full statement in coming days.
Another witness who testified this week was Patricia McIlvenna, a long-time Minneapolis resident and project manager at a large bank. She called 911 three times to report an elderly woman who was wandering the street and seemed like she “didn’t have a place to go” and needed help.
The location of the woman in McIlvenna’s last report was one block from Damond’s home and her call was made two hours before Damond called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in her alley.
After McIlvenna learned of the shooting, she went to the crime scene the next day to talk with investigators to see if she could be of help since there seemed to be a link between her reports of the elderly woman and Damond’s call.
McIlvenna said when she talked to a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent, he “didn’t seem interested.”
Jurors also heard from 17-year-old William Sax. He was heading over to a friend’s house that evening when he rode past Noor and his partner’s squad car seconds before the shooting.
At the time, Sax had smoked marijuana and taken four shots of whiskey. He told jurors that he was listening to music with one earbud when he approached 51st Street and Xerxes Avenue but was “nervous seeing cops,” so he decided to put the second earbud in his ear when saw Harrity and Noor.
Sax recalled seeing a woman in a white tank top and jeans, with a cellphone in her hand, and testified that he heard a gunshot and saw her fall to the ground.
After he heard the gunshot, he got off his bike and immediately started recording the scene with his new iPhone 7.
Sax said he asked Noor, “What’s going on here, sir?” Noor told him to back up but said he could still record.
Sax’s recollection of that night is inconsistent with other witnesses. For example, others testified that Damond was wearing pajamas instead of jeans. Sax told the court that he would trust his earlier statement over his current recollection and admitted his story has changed.
In the coming weeks, the jury will determine Noor’s fate by piecing together details about the incident in hopes of shedding light on the underlying circumstances that led up to the tragic event on a warm summer evening.
One juror is a gynecologist and another is a Minneapolis firefighter. Others include a U.S. Navy veteran, a grocery store manager, a software developer and a carpenter.
The jury includes six people of color, four immigrants and two women.
It is unclear whether Noor will testify
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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