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What to expect as the Ruszczyk police shooting case heads to court

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Mohamed Noor enters the Hennepin County Government Center
Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor enters the Hennepin County Government Center with his attorneys Peter Wold, left, and Thomas Plunkett, right, in Minneapolis.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor is set to appear in court Thursday after attorneys on both sides filed several arguments in the case.

Noor faces third-degree murder and second degree manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk, who was also known professionally as Justine Damond. She called 911 on July 15, 2017 to report a possible sexual assault in the area of her southwest Minneapolis home.

Noor and his partner Matthew Harrity responded to the call. According to the criminal complaint against Noor, they drove through the alley with their headlights off and computer screen dimmed. Ruszczyk appeared in the driver's side window. Noor shot her through the open window.

Justine Damond
Justine Ruszczyk
Courtesy Stephen Govel

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman filed charges against Noor in March, about eight months after the shooting. He'd convened a grand jury to compel certain witnesses, including Minneapolis police officers, who he said weren't cooperating with the investigation, to testify. 

Minneapolis officials fired Noor the day charges were announced. 

Noor hasn't entered a plea, but his attorneys have signaled he'll plead not guilty. He's the second police officer in Minnesota to face criminal charges for an on-duty killing. Former St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez, who shot Philando Castile, was acquitted of manslaughter in 2017.

Since the charges were filed, the prosecution and defense have filed motions that not only pertain to the shooting itself, but have revealed information about the former officer and the Minneapolis Police Department's training and psychological evaluation process. 

Here are some details that have come up in court filings so far:

• Defense attorneys Thomas Plunkett and Peter Wold have said Noor intends to enter a not guilty plea, citing self defense and reasonable force as justification for shooting Ruszczyk.

• Defense attorneys may call William O'Keefe to testify. He's a private investigator in Minneapolis.

• Noor's attorneys argued that the third-degree murder charge doesn't meet the "depraved mind" standard under Minnesota statute.  They also argued to dismiss the charges for "prosecutorial misconduct," citing statements Freeman had made about lack of evidence and investigators not doing their jobs. 

• The defense argued that the third-degree murder charge isn't appropriate because it is used when the offense "occurs only where death is caused without intent to effect the death of any person." Attorneys say Noor reacted to a perceived threat and shot at a particular person.

• Prosecutors argued the third-degree murder statute is appropriate because the act was reckless and done without regard for human life. They also said that Noor fired his 9mm semi-automatic handgun from the passenger seat "without making any inquiry into who or what he was shooting," endangering his partner, which is "homicidal danger" required for third-degree murder. 

• Prosecutors Amy Sweasy and Patrick Lofton wrote that Noor "had no reason to fear for his life and instead had every reason to think Ms. Ruszczyk was either the person who had called 911 for police service or a victim."

• On the prosecutorial misconduct argument, prosecutors responded by saying that Freeman did not violate any rules and that the case highlights issues of public concern that he was addressing. They also said that Noor's rights to a fair trial haven't been affected by the comments because the case was still in its early stages of discovery. No trial date has been set. 

• Prosecutors pointed to prior acts of recklessness, and Noor's training records in an attempt to support the charges against Noor. They highlighted an incident where he pointed a gun at a driver during a traffic stop in May of 2017.

• Prosecutors also said that a psychological evaluation found that Noor had a "level of disaffiliativeness that may be incompatible with public safety requirements for good interpersonal functioning" in an effort to prove he was unfit for duty. 

• The defense pushed back on the psychological evaluation in a response that claimed the psychological evaluation process that the Minneapolis Police Department used was racially biased and unfair to minority candidates. 

• Defense attorneys also noted incidents where Noor was given favorable performance reviews, adding that it's also important to point out his positive record.

• Prosecutors filed a motion asking the court to keep certain data private. The evidence they want to withhold includes grand jury testimony, body camera videos and performance review documents. They say the disclosure could prevent Noor from receiving a fair trial.

• Prosecutors also argued for the release of any statements Noor made — possibly to his attorneys — in his own defense. Noor has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination. But prosecutors say "What the defendant saw, heard, perceived, and reacted to, and why he did what he did are very much in dispute in this case. Because these statements relate specifically to the defendant's unique perception and experience."

• But the defense says their arguments to dismiss the charges are based on what Noor's partner, Matthew Harrity, told the grand jury and not a statement by Noor that could be admissible in court.

Hennepin County Judge Kathryn Quaintance could issue an order from the bench, or in a written filing later.