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Noor trial: Sounds, figures, fears surface in first day of testimony

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor leaves the Hennepin County Government Center after the first day of trial in Minneapolis on April 1, 2019. Evan Frost / MPR News file

MINNEAPOLIS — Was there a thump, or not? Did two officers in a dark Minneapolis alley have reason to fear for their lives, or not?

Those crucial questions surfaced Tuesday, April 9, during opening statements in the trial of Mohamed Noor, the ex-Minneapolis police officer charged in the shooting death of 911 caller Justine Ruszczyk.

Noor's lawyer argued the officer fired his weapon to protect his terrified partner in an alley after seeing a figure by the driver's side window of his police squad raise their right arm.

Calling it a potential "ambush scenario, a setup," Peter Wold told jurors that Noor feared for his life and his partner's life as they responded to a 911 call. Noor, he said, fired after his partner, officer Matthew Harrity exclaimed "Oh Jesus" after hearing a thump or bang on the squad.

Prosecutors, however, argued that the thump was a story that was made up later — that no police at the scene that night talked about a thump on the squad. Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Patrick Lofton told jurors that experts will testify Ruszczyk, who was in her pajamas, could not be considered a threat.

The prosecution also reported officers at the scene turned their body cameras on and off, including the sergeant who took Noor's statement, meaning there is no audio of that encounter, just silent video.

Noor is charged with second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of Ruszczyk, also known as Justine Damond, in July 2017. She had called 911 to report what she thought was an assault happening behind her home.

Investigators say Noor, one of the responding police officers, shot Ruszczyk through the open driver's side window of the squad. He's only the second officer to be charged in an on-duty killing of a civilian in Minnesota.

Wold called Ruszczyk's killing "a tragedy, but in no way was it a crime."

At one point, Judge Kathryn Quaintance scolded Wold for trying to talk about an incident where a police officer was ambushed earlier in 2017.

"We're not here for headlines," she told the lawyer. "Talk about the evidence in the case and what the evidence will show."

'OK, the police are here'

Prosecutor Patrick Lofton laid out the facts of the case while displaying a photo of Justine Ruszczyk for the jury. He began and ended with what she told her fiance Don Damond on the phone: "OK, the police are here."

Lofton said Ruszczyk was holding nothing but a gold iPhone. The same phone she used to call 911.

"He (Noor) fired that shot without saying a word," Lofton said.

The prosecution said the incident began earlier in the evening with another 911 call Noor received about a woman who seemed to be lost or had dementia and was walking around Ruszczyk's neighborhood. That call came at 9:15 p.m.

Lofton said that 911 caller called three times and will testify that she contacted police the next day when she heard about the shooting and was told to talk to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension but then told the information was not relevant.

He said Noor and his partner didn't see anything and left.

About 90 minutes later, they responded to Ruszczyk's call about a "female screaming behind the building." Lofton said they cleared that call and "weren't going to go out and look for female screaming behind the building."

The prosecutor said he plans to introduce a body cam recording after the shooting where Harrity is heard saying he and Noor were surprised by Ruszczyk and that when a another responding officer suggests seeking out a suspect, Harrity says "it was our shot."

Wold argued the facts will show that Noor's acts were not those of a criminal and that he acted reasonably with the information he had at the time.

He said Noor has been "heartbroken" since the moment he realized she was not the threat "he reasonably perceived."

He urged jurors to consider the case with not just what happened that night but all of the context and background the defense plans to introduce.

Wold talked to jurors for 25 minutes about Noor's history, saying he'd been born on a small farm in Somalia and immigrated with his family to the United States as a 7-year-old after living in a refugee camp in Kenya.

In emotional testimony Tuesday afternoon, Don Damond recounted the evening of the shooting. He was in Las Vegas on a business trip when he got a call from Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigators that Ruszczyk had been shot.

"I was in shock. I was shaking," he said. "I said please treat her body with dignity."

He initially thought she'd been shot by someone tied to Ruszczyk's original 911 call. He wasn't told that she'd been shot by a police officer.

The BCA later arranged to return Ruszczyk's engagement ring to Damond.

"I held out just a small bit of hope that it would be the wrong ring," he told jurors. "You hold out hope that in some way it was a mistake."

Who's the jury?

They are 12 men and four women, including alternates. Six appear to be people of color or indigenous or have identified themselves that way. In questionnaires and in initial interviews with attorneys, they revealed some of who they are.

One is a woman who is a doctor who talked about implicit bias in her profession, noting that people sometimes mistake her for a nurse or a lab technician and question her knowledge as a doctor.

There is a woman who is a gun owner and a hunter who said she would generally give police officers who testify more credit than civilians and would find it difficult to convict a police officer.

During jury selection on Friday, she came to tears when thinking about having to see graphic evidence like autopsy photos and body camera footage of the victim dying. But she also said she could be fair and impartial.

There is a carpenter. A grocery store manager. A civil engineer. A person who works in financial services. A firefighter who is also a paramedic — who says he knew three people on the prosecution's witness list — and trained with one of them. He also said he would weigh the testimony objectively.

Several talked about their experience as immigrants.

None of the jurors of color are alternates. So, in final deliberations, the verdict could be decided by a 12-person jury that appears to be half white and half people of color.

Race has been at the center of this trial already with questions for the jury about implicit bias and whether any of them have had negative experiences with Somali people.

No First Amendment privacy

Quaintance on Tuesday also reversed course on whether to allow graphic video and images of the shooting aftermath to be made public if used as evidence in court.

Quaintance had initially said she would not allow public release of those images. "I am trying to protect pictures of this woman naked and her gasping for breath in the last moments of her life," she said Friday.

Several Twin Cities news organizations, including MPR News, argued that Quaintance was placing unconstitutional restrictions on the trial.

On Tuesday, Quaintance relented, telling the court, "It's clear that I need to follow legal precedent ... there is no role of victim privacy in the First Amendment."

Leita Walker, the attorney representing news organizations in the case, said "the media coalition takes no joy in anything related to this trial" but that it was important information in the trial be open so the press can report and the public "can judge for itself the ultimate verdict and how the judicial system works."

This story originally appeared at: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2019/04/09/police-trial-shooting-justine-damond-ruszczyk-australia-noor-opening-statements