Trial Underway for Ex-Cop Who Killed Australian Woman

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – Jurors heard opening arguments Tuesday in the murder trial of a former Minnesota police officer who fatally shot an unarmed Australian woman after she called 911 to report a possible rape in an alley near her home, with his defense attorney arguing he feared an ambush.

In this Aug. 11, 2017, file photo, Johanna Morrow plays the didgeridoo during a memorial service for Justine Damond in Minneapolis. (Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via AP, File)

“I’m dying” – those were Justine Ruszczyk Damond’s last words, Hennepin County Assistant Attorney Patrick Lofton told the jury Tuesday morning.

On July 15, 2017, at 11:27 p.m., Damond, 40, called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her home, saying she had heard “a woman having sex or being raped,” Lofton said.

She called back eight minutes later when no police officers had arrived and was concerned they had the wrong address. One minute and 19 seconds after her phone call with the dispatcher ended, she was shot in the abdomen by former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, now 33, when she approached his squad car.

Damond was pronounced dead at the scene. At the time of her death, she was working as a life coach and was recently engaged to a Minnesotan. She had been living in the U.S. for more than two years.

Noor and his partner Matthew Harrity did not turn on their body-worn cameras so there is no video footage of the actual shooting. Harrity eventually turned on his camera after he opened his car door and began to perform CPR on Damond.

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor leaves the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis after the first day of jury selection on April 1, 2019. (Evan Frost/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)

Lofton told jurors that “Noor fired the shot without saying word.”

Noor and Harrity began their shift that day at 4:15 p.m. and ended at 2:15 a.m. the next morning. Lofton said the officers made their routine patrol and responded to typical calls in the Minneapolis Police Department’s 5th Precinct, one of the lowest crime areas in the city.

About an hour before the shooting, Noor and Harrity had responded to multiple calls about a woman who may have been suffering from dementia in the same location Damond reported a woman in distress.

The two officers arrived to the alley off of 51st Street and issued a code 4, communicating that the “coast is clear” and the officers were safe, Lofton said.

Lofton said Harrity “sensed something” to his left, heard a “murmur” and then saw the silhouette of a person. From there, he heard a pop and a flash and then saw a woman wearing pajamas.

Lofton tried to make clear to jurors Tuesday that a “thump” noise Harrity allegedly heard immediately before the shooting was not mentioned to other police officers or investigators until after he had met with his criminal defense attorney “over donuts and coffee” and interviewed with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Noor, a Somali-American, was ultimately charged with second-degree manslaughter and third-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty, claiming self-defense.

The trial is expected to last a few weeks, and Lofton told jurors they will hear a lot of witness testimony from officers that were called to the scene after the shooting and also about MPD protocol.

Noor’s attorney Peter Wold with Wold Morrison offered his client’s version of events during opening arguments.

“It is often said there are two sides to every story. I can ensure you this is the case in this story,” Wold said.

Wold told jurors that Damond didn’t deserve to be killed and Noor has been heartbroken since he first realized she was not the “threat he thought she was” in the moment.

The attorney talked in great length about Noor’s educational background and family history, as he was the first Somali-American to be assigned to the 5th Precinct.

As a young child, Noor moved to a refugee camp in Kenya from a small village 75 miles from Somalia’s capital city Mogadishu. He and his family moved to the U.S. when Noor was 7 years old and he became fluent in English by fifth grade.

He went on to graduate from Augsburg College, a private liberal arts college in Minneapolis. He married twice and has one son from the first marriage who he sees on a daily basis, his attorney said.  

Wold made a point that not only did Noor, whose friends and family call him by the nickname “Moe,” complete dual degrees from a four-year college, but he also underwent rigorous training at the police academy for seven months and field training for five months to even be eligible to become a Minneapolis police officer – training that is not typical of other police departments.

Wold said the veteran officer who Noor worked closely with during his first days on the job described him as “very sharp, very smart,” and “eager to learn how to be the best cop he could be.”

The attorney tried to convince jurors that Harrity and Noor believed they were in a classic ambush scenario.

“There were no signs of anything. Nothing,” Wold said about when the officers were patrolling the alley in response to Damond’s call.

When the code 4 was called in, a bicyclist passed them. Though Harrity allowed the bicyclist to pass the squad car, they blocked the squad car in the alley and that is when the officers heard a loud “thump,” Wold said.

“The next split seconds after this is what the case is all about,” Wold told jurors.

Jury selection took a week to complete. Twelve men and four women were chosen – 12 will deliberate and four will serve as alternatives. Six people of color are seated on the jury.  

Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance is presiding over the trial.

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