Justine Ruszczyk case: the court overturns the murder conviction of a former officer

Mohamed Noor, a former Minneapolis police officer who killed a woman in 2017 who called for help at her home, had his third degree murder conviction overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday, a brutal overthrow in a case which has attracted international attention.

Mr Noor, who is currently serving a 12-and-a-half-year prison sentence for the murder of Justine Ruszczyk, will face resentment over the lesser count of second degree manslaughter.

Mr Noor’s conviction, the first in decades for a Minnesota officer in a fatal on-duty shooting, was presented at the time as a rare example of a police officer who was punished for a serious crime committed in the exercise of its functions. . The decision to overturn it was seen as a setback for activists who pushed for significant changes in the police and highlighted the difficulties of prosecuting and convicting police officers for shootings on duty.

The 28-page opinion from Minnesota’s highest court focused on the details of the “depraved-minded” murder law on which Mr. Noor was convicted, and whether his actions could meet the definition of. this crime if it targeted a single person. Jurors acquitted Mr. Noor of a more serious second degree murder charge. Second degree manslaughter, the conviction for which Mr. Noor will be convicted, can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison or as little as a fine.

“We can very well agree that Noor’s decision to fire a deadly weapon simply because he was frightened was disproportionate and unreasonable,” the Supreme Court justices wrote in their opinion, which overturned a decision by state appeals court to uphold the murder conviction. “Noor’s conduct is particularly troubling given the trust citizens should be able to place in our peace officers. But the tragic circumstances of this case do not change the fact that Noor’s conduct was directed specifically at Ruszczyk. “

Ms Ruszczyk, 40, a yoga instructor who has spent most of her life in Australia, called 911 twice on a summer night four years ago for help at her home in a Southwestern neighborhood of Minneapolis. She had reported hearing a strange noise behind her house – possibly a woman screaming or having been sexually assaulted, she said – and she wanted the police to check it out.

Mr. Noor and his partner were sent to the area to investigate. Mr Noor’s trial testimony suggested that Ms Ruszczyk walked out into the dark alley to talk to the officers and startled them.

Mr. Noor, sitting in his police car, fired a single fatal shot in his chest. Ms Ruszczyk, also known as Justine Damond, was unarmed and was wearing pajamas.

Thomas Plunkett, an attorney for Mr Noor, said in an email that Mr Noor was anxious to be reunited with his family “as soon as possible”.

“We have always maintained that this was a tragic case, and we are grateful for the exceptionally well-reasoned and unanimous opinion of the highest court in this state,” he said.

Mike Freeman, the senior district attorney for Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, said he was disappointed with the decision and would seek the maximum sentence when Mr. Noor is punished.

“The court overturned previous case law supporting the Hennepin County District Attorney’s indictment decision and we disagree with their analysis of the law,” Freeman said in a statement. “However, we respect and recognize that the Minnesota Supreme Court is the final arbiter in this case.”

Mr Noor’s case had been closely watched in the large Somali-American community of Minneapolis. Mr Noor was the first officer of Somali origin in his police station, and his hiring was celebrated at the time by the mayor. Before and during Mr Noor’s trial, some members of the Somali community said they believed Mr Noor was treated differently than a white officer would have been. Mrs. Ruszczyk was white.

In an interview with a local news station in 2020, Don Damond, Ms Ruszczyk’s fiance, said that three years after his death he was desperate for the lack of major change in the Minneapolis Police Department and still hoped that there would be more attention to ways in which police officers could be trained to defuse situations.

Mr Damond moved from the couple’s house, finding the view of the alley where she died too painful.

Ms Ruszczyk’s death called attention to the deficiencies of the Minneapolis Police Department nearly three years before another Minneapolis officer, Derek Chauvin, killed George Floyd in an incident that sparked protests and civil unrest across the city and the country.

In the aftermath of Ms Ruszczyk’s death, protesters called for a police department overhaul, the police chief was forced out of his post and the city agreed to pay $ 20 million to settle a civil case. But mistrust and misconduct have persisted, and the department, which has seen an exodus of officers since Mr Floyd’s death, is now the subject of a Justice Department investigation.

Unlike Mr. Noor, Mr. Chauvin was convicted of second degree murder, a charge that was not at issue in the Minnesota Supreme Court opinion. Mr. Chauvin is serving a 22.5-year prison sentence for Mr. Floyd’s death and, along with other police officers at the scene, is awaiting trial on federal charges.

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