The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the third-degree murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, meaning the officer will likely see about eight years shaved off his prison sentence.
The decision stunningly rejected a February ruling by the Minnesota Court of Appeals that upheld the murder conviction against Noor, who is serving a 12 1/2 year term for fatally shooting Damond in 2017.
Jurors convicted Noor in 2019 of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for shooting Damond while responding to her 911 call about a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her home. With no criminal history, Noor is likely to be sentenced to about four years on the manslaughter charge.
Noor’s lawyer Thomas Plunkett issued a written statement saying “fairness has been delivered to a person who is devoted to his community.”
Noor responded to the news by saying, “with hardship comes ease,” Plunkett said, adding that the former officer “is so looking forward to hugging his son as soon as possible.”
Damond’s fiancé, Don Damond, could not be immediately reached for comment. Attorney Bob Bennett, who represented Damond’s family in a civil suit against the city, said his office has contacted her family in Australia about the news, but that it was nighttime there and they did not immediately have a response to the development.
“The Supreme Court’s spoken and did so unanimously, so it’s something the family will have to accept,” Bennett said. “They’ve been concerned about it … I’m sure they don’t have to be happy about it.”
The court’s unanimous ruling written by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea focused on the mental state necessary for the legal standard of a “depraved mind,” defined as a “generalized indifference to human life.”
The state’s highest court said such a state cannot exist when a defendant’s conduct is aimed at a particular person. The ruling affirmed what Noor’s lawyers have claimed since trial — that third-degree murder didn’t apply because his actions were focused on a single person.
In Noor’s case, the high court agreed. “The only reasonable inference that can be drawn from the circumstances proved is that appellant’s conduct was directed with particularity at the person who was killed, and the evidence is therefore insufficient to sustain his conviction … for depraved-mind murder,” Gildea wrote.
According to state statute, third-degree murder applies when a defendant kills someone “by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind.”
Earlier this year, a Court of Appeals panel voted 2-1 to uphold Noor’s third-degree murder conviction.
In June, Plunkett asked the state Supreme Court to address two questions: Can a person be convicted of third-degree murder if the deadly act is aimed at a single person, and can the reckless nature of an act alone establish the necessary depraved mind-set?
On the first question, the court said no, so it didn’t need to answer the second.
“The state fails to identify any circumstance proved that is consistent with the jury’s verdict that would support a reasonable inference that Noor’s conduct was indiscriminate or otherwise non-particularized,” the court said. “We likewise are unable to do so.”
The word “others” has led many attorneys to interpret that the statute applies when multiple people are endangered and someone is killed. Veteran attorneys have said it would apply, for instance, to someone shooting indiscriminately into a crowd. The third-degree murder charge often is used against drug dealers in overdose deaths.
Plunkett argued in his petition to the state Supreme Court that the depraved mind element wasn’t fulfilled because Noor was carrying out his duties as an officer, acted in a split second and directed his actions at a specific person out of fear that his partner’s life was in danger from an ambush. The Supreme Court agreed.
“We may very well agree that Noor’s decision to shoot a deadly weapon simply because he was startled was disproportionate and unreasonable,” Gildea wrote. “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.”
The state Court of Appeals had said that Noor’s actions met the legal threshold for a “depraved mind” when he sat inside his patrol car and fired through his partner’s open window, killing Damond.
Court of Appeals Judge Michelle Larkin wrote the court’s decision, saying state law allows a third-degree murder conviction even when conduct is directed at a single person. But Judge Matthew Johnson was the dissenter on that 2-1 decision, saying he would have sent the case back for sentencing on the lesser second-degree manslaughter conviction.
Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor Ted Sampsell-Jones said the decision leaned heavily on precedent, laws written centuries ago. “Frankly, the Legislature should fix it,” he said. “Our statutes are archaic.”
The third-degree murder charge has been an issue in other police prosecutions, especially that of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the unrelated killing of George Floyd when jury selection began in March.
Sampsell-Jones said Chauvin’s third-degree murder conviction is now essentially thrown out.
Prosecutors also were weighing whether to add the charge to three former officers accused of aiding and abetting Chauvin. That won’t happen now nor is it likely the charge will be added against former Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter who shot Daunte Wright earlier this year in a traffic stop.
In the case of Chauvin, he initially had been charged last year with third-degree murder, but Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill dismissed the count, saying it didn’t apply because Chauvin was focused solely on Floyd.
The Court of Appeals’ ruling against Noor in February prompted prosecutors to ask Cahill to reinstate the third-degree murder charge against Chauvin. Cahill refused, but the Court of Appeals compelled him to reinstate the charge.
Chauvin was convicted April 20 of the higher second-degree murder charge and sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison.
Noor will be sentenced again on the lesser charge by Hennepin County Judge Kathleen Quaintance. No date was set.
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