MINNEAPOLIS — The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor was only the second time that prosecutors in Minnesota had tried a police officer for taking someone's life while on duty.
In the criminal justice system, defendants don't need to prove anything. Prosecutors are required to prove a defendant's guilt to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Now that Noor has been convicted and sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison for the killing of Justine Ruszczyk, also known as Justine Damond, the Hennepin County prosecutors who tried the case are speaking publicly for the first time about their approach.
During the monthlong trial of Noor, issues of police accountability and racial disparities in the criminal justice system emerged again and again. Some of Noor's supporters have accused prosecutors of being heavy-handed since the very beginning.
Noor was initially charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Prosecutors added a second-degree murder charge later on. Noor was convicted of all but the most serious charge.
In an interview with MPR News on Friday, prosecutor Patrick Lofton said each of the three charges fit Noor's actions, and that the state wasn't just throwing a bunch of charges in the air to see which one would stick. After the July 2017 shooting, Noor never spoke to investigators, as is his legal right, so prosecutors didn't know exactly what he would say. Lofton said the second-degree murder charge was added after defense filings shed light on what Noor's story in court would be.
"We didn't know the defendant would testify. We figured he probably would. So we had to be ready through our witnesses and through our evidence to question his version of events and point to objective facts that made his version of events unreasonable," Lofton said. "The jury got that. That's what we did."
The third-degree murder charge that Noor was sentenced for on Friday includes language about a "depraved mind." The judge did not emphasize that language in her instructions to the jury, but defense attorneys argued that it was more appropriate for cases where someone drives through a crowd.
Lofton pointed out that model jury instructions in the state leave the term out, instead telling jurors to look at the disregard for human life shown by the defendant and their reckless actions.
"The state doesn't have to prove that Mohamed Noor or any other third-degree murder defendant is a depraved person at all times," Lofton said. "They have to prove that the person did an act that shows a depraved mind."
Why highlight problems with investigators?
At trial, the prosecution's witnesses revealed missteps by state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigators, and a lack of cooperation from Minneapolis police officers. The Hennepin County Attorney's Office took the step of calling a grand jury to compel officers to share what they knew, a move that some officers condemned.
And at Noor's sentencing on Friday, Judge Kathryn Quaintance ran through a list of concerns jurors had shared with her about Minneapolis police and BCA investigators.
"What has changed? What will change so this does not happen again? How does the department address officer safety without jeopardizing public safety?" Quaintance asked. "The jurors and the people of Minneapolis need and deserve answers."
Prosecutor Amy Sweasy said their intention was not to put the Minneapolis police or BCA on trial. But the prosecution wanted jurors and members of the public to know why the early parts of the investigation were incomplete.
"We needed the officers at the scene to be interviewed; those reports that were written didn't contain all the information we wanted," Sweasy said. "For example, as a result of those interviews at the grand jury, we learned that five people had talked to the defendant. No one had put any of that in their reports."
Prosecutors asked the BCA to conduct more interviews, including with police officers on the scene, and were initially rebuffed. Some police officers even met in what Quaintance described as a "conspiracy" in the cafeteria of the government center to talk about not cooperating with the investigation.
'We believed very strongly that since it was just a fact that some of these things were so hard to ascertain at the beginning, that we couldn't then walk into court and not explain that," Sweasy said. "From the public accountability piece of a trial like this, when you're putting a public official and indeed a police officer on trial, the jury had every right to know that, as did the members of the public."
In light of these apparent failures by law enforcement, some activists are calling for Hennepin County to re-open investigations into previous shootings by police officers, including the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark in 2015.
When asked whether previous incidents will get another look due to details that emerged about the BCA at Noor's trial, Sweasy said charging decisions in those cases were made after more thorough investigations than the initial BCA investigation into Ruszczyk's killing.
"Many of those missteps or those issues of concern that you've identified just were absent in those other cases," Sweasy said.
What's it like for prosecutors to take on law enforcement?
Prosecutors work closely with law enforcement. In the case of the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, they work regularly with both the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Minneapolis police.
"It is a very difficult road to go as a prosecutor, to prosecute a police officer. It's also unpleasant and undesirable to have to do it," Sweasy said. "The burden is very high to hold a police officer accountable, and we certainly were aware of that going in, and that informed the decisions we made about how we tried the case."
In this trial, some police officers who testified repeatedly couldn't "recall" details about the case.
"Certain witnesses had problems with memory or credibility or inconsistency with prior statements; you're going to find that in any criminal case. Here they happened to all be law enforcement personnel which, obviously, looked how it looked," Sweasy said.
But the Minneapolis police and BCA still work closely with the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, including on officer-involved shooting cases.
"I think it would be naive to say that there isn't work to be done there," Sweasy said. "It's important that work gets done, too, as well as continuing to have those good working relationships."
Even though it can be awkward, Sweasy said modern prosecutors' offices need to be ready to try a case involving an officer like this.
"Somebody has to do it, right?" Sweasy said. "Where there is a crime that is committed, someone has to prosecute it, whether that should stay in an office or not."
What factor did race play in the case?
Noor's killing of Ruszczyk flipped the script on high-profile police shootings. Often, black men have been the victims. In this case, the victim was white and the officer was black and of Somali descent.
A rally the night before Noor was sentenced attracted hundreds of people. Noor Abdirahman said that black men, including Noor, are treated differently by the criminal justice system.
"Had other cops went to jail and been prosecuted the same way, I would say, 'OK, I'm happy with the result.' But this really tells me, the system is really only made for one audience, and that's the white audience," Abdirahman said.
Asked about whether prosecutors factored racial dynamics into their case, Lofton had one word:
Race did come up during the trial. Some observers took a comment Sweasy made while cross-examining Noor to imply that a blond woman in a pink T-shirt could not be a credible threat. But Sweasy said she was using the exact words of Noor during his testimony. She said it's required in cross-examination to use the witness' words.
"To us, it doesn't matter whether it was brown hair and a Twins jersey or blond hair and a purple shirt or whatever," Sweasy said. "A police officer has to be able to identify more than what somebody looks like and what they're wearing before they can exercise the use of deadly force."
Noor can appeal his convictions within 90 days of being sentenced. If he does, an attorney who specializes in appeals at the Hennepin County Attorney's Office will handle the state's side of the case.
This story originally appeared at: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2019/06/10/prosecutors-detail-strategy-challenges-noor-case