Attorney: Freeman convenes grand jury in Ruszczyk killing by Mpls. cop

A photograph of Justine Ruszczyk surrounded with colored roses
A photograph of Justine Ruszczyk surrounded with colored roses and other arrangements sits on a stage at Lake Harriet for her memorial.
Maria Cardona | MPR News file

Updated 5 p.m. | Posted 1:32 p.m.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman is convening a grand jury as part of the process to decide whether to file charges against Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor in the 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk.

Minneapolis attorney Bob Bennett, who's representing Ruszczyk's family, confirmed the existence of a grand jury.

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Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman makes a statement on Tuesday.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman
Ellen Schmidt | MPR News file

"We applaud any aggressive efforts to get people to talk," he told MPR News. "It appears there has been a reluctance on the part of a number of officers to talk, and I'm happy that they are using the grand jury to compel that."

Later in the day, Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, said that grand jury subpoenas are being issued to officers.

Officers will "fully cooperate" in the grand jury process, Kroll said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the Federation cannot answer the obvious question the media is asking: How can County Attorney Freeman retain charging authority while simultaneously submitting the case to a grand jury? Only Mr. Freeman can answer this."

Asked if he knew how many officers have received subpoenas, Kroll said he didn't know how many had been served but heard that 35 to 40 were going out.

Freeman's office on Thursday declined to say if the panel had been convened, noting that "because grand jury proceedings are secret, we cannot comment on grand jury subpoenas or any testimony that occurs before a grand jury."

The office, however, said that Freeman would ultimately make the decision on whether or not to bring charges in the Noor case.

The move is significant because two years ago, Freeman had vowed to stop sending police shooting cases to grand juries in the wake of the 2015 killing of Jamar Clark by a Minneapolis police officer following a confrontation.

At the time, Freeman's office said charging decisions on police shooting cases would be handled by his office going forward, breaking with a longstanding practice.

It was viewed as a victory for advocates who believed grand juries less likely to charge officers, although ultimately Freeman decided not to press charges against the officer in the Clark killing.

"For me, grand juries should no longer be used in police shooting cases in Hennepin County," Freeman said in a March 2016 statement.

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office said Thursday that the policy of Freeman — not a grand jury — making charging decisions in officer-involved shootings had not changed.

Noor fatally shot Ruszczyk from the passenger seat of his squad car through the driver's side window after he and his partner, officer Matthew Harrity, responded to her 911 call on July 15.

Ruszczyk, known professionally as Justine Damond, had called police to report that she thought she'd heard a woman yell for help outside her home in Minneapolis' Fulton neighborhood, telling the 911 operator she was worried someone was being attacked.

A preliminary report by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said Harrity reported being startled by a sound coming from near their squad as they drove through an alley with their car's lights off. Right after, Ruszczyk reportedly came near the squad's driver's side window.

After the shooting, then-Police Chief Janee Harteau criticized Noor's actions, saying they ran against department training and that "Justine didn't have to die."

Noor remains on paid administrative leave. He has declined to talk to investigators about what happened.

Freeman had been expected to decide whether or not to charge Noor by the end of the year. The BCA turned over its findings to Freeman in September. Last month, however, Freeman said the probe would continue into 2018.

It's not clear what Freeman's office is asking of the grand jury.

In mid-December, Freeman told a group of union members that he did not have enough evidence to decide yet whether to file charges against Noor and blamed BCA investigators for not doing their jobs.

He apologized once the comments became public.

Noor attorney Thomas Plunkett declined to talk about news of a grand jury, saying "any public comment would jeopardize the fairness of an important judicial function. Officer Noor continues to personally acknowledge the grief of the Damond and Ruszczyk families for their tragic loss."