The Minneapolis police officer who shot and killed an unarmed woman who had called authorities for help was convicted of murder on Tuesday, the coda to a dramatic, years-long case that provoked international indignation and forced changes in the city’s leadership.
A jury found the officer, Mohamed Noor, guilty of third-degree murder and manslaughter in the July 2017 death of Justine Damond, a 40-year-old Australian woman who had approached Noor’s squad car shortly after calling 911 to report a possible rape near her home.
By some accounts, he’s the first Minnesota police officer to be found guilty of an on-duty killing — an extremely rare occurrence in any state, as police are hardly ever charged and are scarcely convicted in fatal shootings.
In the nearly three years since Damond was killed, her case has triggered resignations, policy shifts and debates about racial equity in the criminal justice system.
Noor, whom the department fired after he was charged in 2018, avoided a conviction on the more serious count of intentional second-degree murder. The Associated Press reported that jurors deliberated for 11 hours total on Monday and Tuesday before they reached a decision.
After the verdict was issued, Noor was taken into custody and will await a June 7 sentencing hearing. under Minnesota sentencing guidelines, the presumptive sentence for third-degree murder is about 12½ years, officials said, while the presumptive sentence for second-degree manslaughter is about four years.
During the trial, which unfolded over three weeks in April, Noor broke two years of silence to recount what happened in the alley behind Damond’s house that summer night, after Damond had twice called 911. He testified that he heard a loud bang against his squad car, which startled his partner, Matthew Harrity, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
“Oh, Jesus!” Noor said his partner yelled. Noor then said he saw a woman with blonde hair and a pink T-shirt raise her right arm outside the car’s open window.
“I had to make a split-second decision,” Noor testified, saying that he used his gun to protect his partner’s life.
“I fired one shot,” he said. “The threat was gone. She could have had a weapon.”
But prosecutors said Noor acted rashly, shooting without actually seeing any weapon. They also expressed doubt about the bang Noor reportedly heard, according to the AP. Neither Noor nor his partner told investigators at the scene about the noise, and Harrity didn’t mention it until three days later, in an interview with state authorities. And Noor did not answer investigators’ questions.
Crucially, Noor and Harrity had not activated their body cameras, depriving authorities of key footage of the encounter and raising questions about the department’s body camera policies, which have since been changed.
“It does not give us pleasure to call out police wrongdoing,” Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, said in a news conference following the verdict. “But when it occurs, it is our job to let the public know and, in extreme cases, to bring charges and prosecution.”
Damond’s fiance, Don Damond, and her father, John Ruszczyk, appeared alongside Freeman at the briefing. Don Damond said he hoped the case would spur “a complete transformation of policing in Minneapolis and around the country.”
Ruszczyk added that he believes the decision “reflects the community’s commitment to three important pillars of civil society: The rule of law, the respect of the sanctity of life and the obligation of the police force to serve and protect. We believe this guilty verdict strengthens those pillars.”
In a statement, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who was not running the department when Damond was killed, said he respects the verdict and wants the department to learn from it.
“As chief, I will ensure that the MPD learns from this case and we will be in spaces to listen, learn and do all we can to help our communities in healing,” he said.
The shooting prompted protests in the United States and in Australia, where Damond lived for most of her life. Her friends and family there demanded answers, investigations and justice. Local outlets splashed the story across their front pages — yet another example of America’s fatal attraction to firearms.
One headline in the Daily Telegraph, a Sydney-based paper, summed up the sentiment in a front-page headline: “AMERICAN NIGHTMARE."
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, the shooting roiled the highest rungs of city leadership. Police Chief Janeé Harteau resigned a week later, forced out by a mayor who said she had “lost confidence in the chief’s ability to lead us further.”
But by that November, the mayor, Betsy Hodges, was also out. She lost her reelection bid as some criticized her handling of Damond’s killing and other high-profile incidents that drew national scrutiny.
Damond’s death and Noor’s trial have revealed deep, complex divides in one of the Midwest’s largest cities. The Minneapolis area is home to the biggest Somali diaspora in the country, and many in the community worried that Noor, a black Somali American officer, would not be treated fairly after shooting a white woman.
The case reversed the racial dynamics of many of the notorious killings at the center of a national debate about police officers’ use of fatal force and, in the process, advocates said, further revealed systemic prejudice in the justice system.
Many wondered whether a white officer would have been treated differently.
“He’s Somali. He’s black. And he’s Muslim — that’s a trifecta,” Mel Reeves, a civil rights activist, told the Star Tribune. “The system has an easier time convicting a black man in a blue uniform.”
But, Reeves said, the verdict is notable for showing that “police shouldn’t be above the law.” He added that “this is what should happen all the time.”
Many invoked the case of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by a police officer in a nearby St. Paul suburb during a routine traffic stop in 2016. The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, was acquitted of all charges, a decision that led to protests in the state’s capital.
“The system continues to fail black people, and it will continue to fail you all,” Valerie Castile, Philando’s mother, said shortly after the acquittal was announced.
Damond and Castile are among the hundreds killed every year by police officers. In the four full years The Washington Post has tracked such killings, it has recorded over 900 each year.