Justine Ruszczyk Case: Court Overturns Ex-Officer’s Murder Conviction

Justine Ruszczyk Case: Court Overturns Ex-Officer’s Murder
Conviction 1

Mohamed Noor’s manslaughter conviction stands, and he will be resentenced on that count in the death of Justine Ruszczyk.

Mohamed Noor, a former Minneapolis police officer who in 2017 killed a woman who had called for help at her home, had his third-degree murder conviction thrown out by the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday, an abrupt reversal in a case that drew international attention.

Mr. Noor, who is currently serving a 12-and-a-half-year prison sentence for killing Justine Ruszczyk, will be resentenced on the less severe count of second-degree manslaughter.

The conviction of Mr. Noor, the first in decades for a Minnesota officer in an on-duty fatal shooting, was held up at the time as a rare example of a police officer who was punished for a serious crime committed in the line of duty. The decision to overturn it was seen as a setback for activists who have pushed for significant changes to policing and underscored the difficulties of prosecuting and convicting police officers for on-duty shootings.

The 28-page opinion by Minnesota’s highest court focused on the details of the “depraved-mind” murder statute on which Mr. Noor was convicted, and whether his actions could fit the definition of that crime if he was targeting 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 resentenced, can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison or as little as a fine.

“We may very well agree that Noor’s decision to shoot a deadly weapon simply because he was startled was disproportionate and unreasonable,” the Supreme Court justices wrote in their opinion, which reversed a decision by a state appellate court to uphold the murder conviction. “Noor’s conduct is especially troubling given the trust that 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 with particularity toward Ruszczyk.”

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Ms. Ruszczyk, 40, a yoga instructor who had spent most of her life in Australia, called 911 twice on a summer night four years ago asking for help at her home in a southwest Minneapolis neighborhood. She had reported hearing a strange noise behind her home — possibly a woman screaming or being 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. Testimony at Mr. Noor’s trial suggested that Ms. Ruszczyk went outside in the darkened alley to talk to the officers, and startled them.

Mr. Noor, seated in his police cruiser, fired a single, fatal shot into her chest. Ms. Ruszczyk, who also went by the name Justine Damond, was unarmed and wearing pajamas.

Thomas Plunkett, a lawyer for Mr. Noor, said in an email that Mr. Noor was looking forward to being reunited with his family “as soon as possible.”

“We have always maintained that this was a tragic case, and we are grateful for an exceptionally well-reasoned and unanimous opinion from this State’s highest court,” he said.

Mike Freeman, the top prosecutor in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, said he was disappointed in the ruling and would seek the maximum penalty when Mr. Noor is resentenced.

“The court overruled prior case law supporting the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office charging decision and we disagree with their analysis of the law,” Mr. Freeman said in a statement. “However, we respect and acknowledge that the Minnesota Supreme Court is the final arbiter in this matter.”

Mr. Noor’s case had been closely watched in Minneapolis’s large Somali-American community. Mr. Noor was the first officer of Somali heritage in his police precinct, 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 being treated differently than a white officer would have been. Ms. Ruszczyk was white.

In an interview with a local news station in 2020, Don Damond, Ms. Ruszczyk’s fiancé, said that three years after her death, he despaired over a lack of major change in the Minneapolis Police Department and still hoped that there would be greater focus on ways that police officers could be trained to de-escalate situations.

Mr. Damond has moved out of the couple’s house, finding the sight of the alley where she died too painful.

Ms. Ruszczyk’s death focused attention on the shortcomings 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 country.

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

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 officers on the scene, is awaiting trial on federal charges.

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