Saturday June 8, 2019
By Chao Xiong
"I caused this tragedy and it is my burden." – Mohamed Noor
Ex-Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor apologized in court Friday for fatally shooting Justine Ruszczyk Damond in 2017, but the judge who sentenced him to 12½ years in prison for his actions was unmoved, saying that he hasn’t taken responsibility for the killing that reverberated around the world.
“He does not take personal responsibility for making an erroneous decision to fire a gun at her,” said Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance. “He and his partner continue to maintain that her presence near the vehicle justified their extreme response.”
The case grabbed worldwide attention and raised questions about the role of race and gender in the prosecution of officer-involved shootings. Damond was a white woman from Australia; Noor, who is black, was born in Somalia.
Before being sentenced, Noor offered his apologies to Damond’s family, saying he will live with the consequences of his actions for the rest of his life.
“I caused this tragedy, and it is my burden,” he said.
His attorneys, Thomas Plunkett and Peter Wold, issued a statement afterward voicing their disappointment with the sentence. They made one last argument Friday for an acquittal on all counts and then asked for probation.
“The tragedy surrounding this case has only deepened,” they said. “We have concerns with the process that will need to be addressed. We are not done fighting for Mohamed Noor.”
Several community members said afterward that because of race and religion, Noor was treated differently from other officers who have killed civilians. Noor is the second officer in Minnesota to be charged for an on-duty fatal shooting and the first to be convicted.
Abdiaziz Mohamed held up a sign in the courthouse lobby reading “Noor: Victim of identity politics.”
“The system is not built for us,” said Mohamed, who said he is related to Noor.
About 125 members of the public and media packed two courtrooms to watch the sentencing, where Damond’s fiancé, Don Damond, and family members told the court that they live with crippling grief.
Don Damond read an emotional letter addressed to his fiancée as Quaintance looked on empathetically. Noor sat at a table between his attorneys, showing no overt reaction during the two-hour proceeding.
“Dear Justine, I miss you so much every day, every moment,” Damond said. “I don’t understand how such a thing could happen to you and to us.”
He described how he cried upon seeing her wedding dress in a tailor shop a week after she died. The two were to marry in Hawaii the next month.
Noor, 33, fatally shot Damond, 40, on July 15, 2017, while responding to her 911 call about a possible sexual assault behind her south Minneapolis home. Don Damond testified at trial that he had directed his fiancée to call police when she called him about hearing worrisome noises. He was on a work trip in Las Vegas at the time.
“I’m sorry I told you to call the police that night,” Damond said, reading from the letter. “It was at my direction that you summoned your own death. I have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
The two had met at a meditation retreat in Colorado years earlier. They had planned to have a child together and split their time between Sydney, Australia, and either Hawaii or Minnesota.
Through a statement read by a court employee, Justine’s brother, Jason Ruszczyk, said he had planned to move his family from Australia to Oregon to be closer to her.
The morning she was killed, he said, she texted him to say she was shipping a box of toys to his two young children.
“The eagle has left the nest,” he said she wrote, adding that the box remains unopened.
Jason Ruszczyk’s wife said in a statement read by a victim advocate that their young children are so traumatized they fear other family members will die or disappear overnight.
Damond’s father, stepmother, brother and sister-in-law live in Australia. They attended Noor’s trial but not the sentencing.
Jurors convicted Noor on April 30 of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for killing Damond. They acquitted him of second-degree murder with intent.
Quaintance sentenced Noor for the murder conviction, leaving the lower count unaddressed. State guidelines called for about 11-15 years in prison.
Quaintance cited a presentence investigation in which Noor maintained that there was no other action he could have taken. The investigation recommended 12½ years, which prosecutors supported.
“Mr. Noor has not acknowledged that he incorrectly assessed the situation; rather, he states in the presentence investigation that he had pure intentions and, quote, ‘Deep down I felt I was justified,’ end quote,” the judge said.
Forty-four community members and Noor’s partner, Matthew Harrity, wrote letters to the judge asking for leniency, citing his good standing in the city.
“I know the emotional struggles he is dealing with as am I,” Harrity wrote. “Noor has a good heart and the pain and suffering from that night are going to follow him for the rest of his life, which seems to be a pretty large punishment in itself. …
“I ask you to please take in consideration the humility it takes to be a police officer in today’s world, and the fact that Noor and his family have already suffered and will continue to do so.”
Harrity attended the sentencing, showing no overt reaction.
Defense attorneys asked for probation with community service and a week in the county workhouse coinciding with Damond’s birthday and death. Alternatively, they said, Noor should get a year and a day in custody.
“What really caused this is the fear that continues to permeate our society,” Plunkett said, referring to officers’ fear of being hurt on the job and civilians’ fear of being hurt by officers. “We are a society that is armed to the teeth.”
Plunkett also proposed requiring Noor and his family to meet daily for a week with Damond’s family.
“A prison sentence only punishes Noor for culture that he didn’t create, and one he would like to see change himself,” he said.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy argued that there were no legal grounds for either of the defense’s proposed sentences.
“There can be no crime more severe than that committed by the defendant, which is murder,” Sweasy said. “Your honor, the law must keep its promise here.”
Noor spoke in a strained voice when given an opportunity to address the court, saying he wanted to meet with Damond’s family to explain what occurred that night and to apologize.
“The system is dehumanizing,” he said of the courts.
Noor described how the fear he felt in the moment he shot Damond was replaced with “horror” when he got out of the squad car and saw her.
“Seeing her there, I knew I was wrong,” he said. “Working to save her life and watching her slip away is a feeling I can’t explain.”
Noor testified at trial that he and Harrity had finished checking on Damond’s call about 11:40 p.m. when a loud bang on their squad car startled them. He testified that he feared they were being ambushed, so he shot at Damond when she appeared at Harrity’s driver’s side window.
Don Damond said in court Friday that the thought of that night was so traumatizing he eventually sold their house.
“Every Saturday for the first year after you died, at 11:39 p.m., the exact time we had hung up the phone, I walked down to the end of that alley, just as you did,” he said. “I would light a candle just so you could see me. I sat in the spot you died … I want you to know that I don’t go to that spot any longer … I want to remember how you lived, not where you were murdered.”
Staff writer Libor Jany and staff video producer Shari Gross contributed to this report.