MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It’s believed to be the first time a Minnesota police officer has been convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting.
With no video of Mohamed Noor shooting Justine Rusczyk Damond and conflicting testimony about the moments leading up to her death, some activists and community leaders have said race was a factor in this case from the start. The victim was white; the officer is black.
From the moment Minneapolis’ top prosecutor charged Noor, he’s been fighting the perception that race played a role in his decision. He’s rejected that, but some say bias can be an underlying issue, even for those who believe they are acting in good faith.
“We can’t deny that there is implicit racial bias in our society at large,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Sometimes that enters into the decisions that prosecutors make. Sometimes that’s going to enter into the decision that jurors make. The hard part is trying to figure out when that is true.”
Noor, 33, was convicted Tuesday of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the July 2017 death of Damond, a 40-year-old dual citizen of the U.S. and Australia who was unarmed when she approached Noor’s squad car after calling 911 to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her home. He was acquitted of second-degree intentional murder but still faces the prospect of years in prison.
Noor testified that he and his partner heard a loud bang on their squad car that startled them, and that he fired “to stop the threat” after he saw his partner’s terrified reaction and a woman appear at his partner’s window raising her arm. His partner testified that he hadn’t yet assessed whether there was a threat himself. Prosecutors noted that Noor hadn’t even determined whether Damond had a weapon before firing.
When Noor testified, he spoke of his early years in Somalia and time in a refugee camp before immigrating to the U.S. He also spoke of not being accepted when he first came to Minnesota. At times, prosecutors referred to Damond as a blond woman in a pink T-shirt, something that Osler said called attention to her race.
Minnesota’s welcoming refugee programs have made the state a magnet for Somalis fleeing civil war, including families like Noor’s, and Minnesota is home to the nation’s largest population of Somali immigrants. Noor’s hiring in 2015 was celebrated by Minneapolis leaders eager to diversify the police force in a city that is 64% white.
Rep. Ilhan Omar — a Somali American who is also from Minneapolis — tweeted Wednesday that Noor’s guilty verdict was “an important step towards justice and a victory for all who oppose police brutality.”
“It cannot be lost, however, that it comes in the wake of acquittals for officers who took the lives of people of color, both in Minnesota and nationwide,” Omar added. “We must have the same level of accountability and justice in all officer-involved killings and address violence-based training for police officers.”
The Minnesota-based Somali American Police Association issued a statement saying it believes institutional prejudice “heavily influenced” Noor’s conviction and that Freeman had “other motives” when he charged Noor.
“Unfortunately it’s a system that seems to work for certain people and not for everybody. And it’s something we need to live with,” said Waheid Siraach, a spokesman for the association.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman rejected the idea that race played a role.
“We look at each case based on the facts and the evidence and the law that’s in front of us. And I will stand by what we have done,” he told reporters immediately after Tuesday’s verdict.
When asked how Noor’s case was different from fatal police shootings in which Freeman did not file charges, he said: “The evidence showed that the officer acted unreasonably.”
Police officers in the U.S. are rarely charged in on-duty shootings, much less convicted. A database published by the Washington Post shows that since the start of 2015, U.S. police officers have shot and killed between 900 to 1,000 people each year.
Since 2005, only 101 nonfederal officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter in an on-duty shooting, according to data compiled by Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University. Some of those prosecutions are pending, but to date, only 36 officers have been convicted — often for lesser offenses.
In Minnesota, only one other officer has been charged in a fatal shooting in recent history. Jeronimo Yanez, a suburban Latino officer, was acquitted of manslaughter in the 2016 death of black motorist Philando Castile.
Jurors in Noor’s case were questioned about their views toward Somalis before being selected. Half of the 12 jurors were people of color, including immigrants. One juror who spoke to KARE-TV on the condition that his name not be published said he respects the Somali community and Noor seemed like a good guy and a good police officer.
“But we determined he committed a crime. And in the end, no one is above the law,” the juror said, adding: “It was two seconds time, he made a bad mistake, and even if you have a split-second decision, you’re still responsible for the decisions you make.”
Noor, who was fired from the police force after being charged, is scheduled to be sentenced June 7. His attorneys have not commented on the verdict and have not said whether they will appeal.