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Twin Cities media say judge in Noor case is restricting public and press access to trial

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Mohamed Noor leaves the Hennepin County Government Center.
Mohamed Noor is surrounded by reporters as he leaves the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis following a hearing earlier this month.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Updated: 6 p.m.| Posted: 4:30 p.m. 

Five Twin Cities news organizations said the judge in the murder trial for former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, set to begin Monday, is limiting public and press access the high-profile case, they said in a letter released Friday.

An attorney representing the Star Tribune, CBS, MPR News, KARE 11 and Fox9 wrote to Hennepin County District Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson requesting a meeting with her as soon as possible to improve access to the trial.

The letter called the current access "woefully inadequate."

Noor is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the fatal shooting Justine Ruszczyk, a yoga teacher and meditation coach from Australia. In July 2017, Ruszczyk, also known as Justine Damond, called 911 to report a potential assault in the alley behind her south Minneapolis home.

A spokesperson for Bernhardson said the judge received the letter and will contact the news organizations' lawyer, Leita Walker, after reviewing it and considering next steps. 

The courtroom where the trial is scheduled has 28 seats, according to the letter written by Walker, a media lawyer with a law firm Ballard Spahr.  

Eight reporters have spots reserved during the trial; the rest are set aside for members of the public, a sketch artist and family members of Noor and Ruszczyk. 

MPR News, the Star Tribune, KARE 11 and KSTP secured seats, as did four reporters from national and international outlets. There will be an overflow room with audio and video feeds from the courtroom for reporters who didn't get a seat, but the news organizations' letter says those feeds will be "sub-optimal." 

The news organizations also expressed concern in the letter about the court's rule that media must "respect" limitations placed on jurors, attorneys and witnesses.

"This is a vague and ambiguous statement that, coupled with the threat of sanctions in the order, threatens to chill the exercise of free speech rights under the First Amendment," the letter reads.

 Professor: Restrictions may hamper public, press rights

University of Minnesota law professor Heidi Kitrosser said the judge's restrictions raise First Amendment problems. Legal precedent assumes the press and general public may attend criminal trials like Noor's, Kitrosser said, except under very narrow circumstances.

One key question: Are the restrictions significant enough that they'd hamper the public getting information about the trial or hinder journalists from reporting on it?

Kitrosser said it appears the Noor trial restrictions are enough to impede journalists and the public from accessing the trial.

While Hennepin County District Court has said an overflow room will offer journalists audio and video of the trial, Kitrosser said "the restrictions sound extreme enough that the [news organizations] would have a good case that this raises First Amendment problems."

And she said restricting access to a trial because of its high-profile nature likely wouldn't hold up in court if challenged.

Judge ruling to keep 'graphic evidence' from public

Judge Kathryn Quaintance, who's presiding over the trial, said Friday that media and members of the public won't be allowed to see graphic evidence.

Only jurors will be able to see body camera footage from the shooting's aftermath and photos from the medical examiner report, Quaintance ruled.

She also ruled that jurors' names, addresses and identifying information will be kept private during the trial. 

Quaintance was copied on the letter to Bernhardson, the higher-ranking district court judge. 

Noor's criminal trial has received much interest locally and internationally. It's rare for a police officer to face charges stemming from a fatal on-duty shooting — that has only happened one other time in Minnesota history. And Ruszczyk is native to Australia, where her death made headlines. 

The news organizations' letter said Hennepin County District Court could've avoided issues regarding press coverage if it handled Noor's trial like Wisconsin did with Jake Patterson's hearings for the kidnapping of Jayme Closs and killings of her parents. 

Wisconsin courts went as far as allowing news organizations to live-stream audio and video from the courtroom.

In their letter, the news organizations say they believe Hennepin County District Court wants to fulfill its constitutional mandates to provide freedom of the press and right to a fair trial in Noor's case. "This objective can best be achieved through communication and collaboration with not only trial participants but also the journalists who will serve as the public's proxy by attending, monitoring, and reporting on what transpires at trial," the letter says.