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Media outlets say Noor judge rulings are unconstitutional, demand reversal

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Inside the courtroom at Mohamed Noor's trial on Tuesday, April 2, 2019.
This sketch shows inside the courtroom for ex-Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor's trial on Tuesday, April 2, 2019.
Nancy Muellner for MPR News

Five Twin Cities news organizations say Judge Kathryn Quaintance is interfering with their First Amendment rights by planning to withhold certain evidence in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor.

A lawyer representing MPR News, the Star Tribune, WCCO, Kare 11 and Fox 9 in a court filing asked the judge to reverse any order that would restrict the public from seeing evidence. 

The lawyer, Leita Walker, also asked Quaintance to allow sketch artists to draw jury members and others involved in the trial, according to the filing in Hennepin County District Court.  

Noor's trial began Monday with jury selection. He faces murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk in July 2017. Ruszczyk, also known as Justine Damond, called 911 to report a possible assault behind her south Minneapolis home. 

Ruszczyk's killing became international news, including in her native country of Australia. Quaintance cited the case's high-profile nature as a reason she placed additional restrictions on the press in her earlier rulings.

The judge said she wanted to protect Ruszczyk's privacy in restricting body camera footage of the shooting's aftermath and medical examiner report photos. Such evidence is routinely displayed during criminal trials.

Quaintance has said the jurors' names and other identifying information will be kept private. Jurors will be identified by a number in court. In addition, she said sketch artists hired by media organizations may not draw jurors' faces to help protect them from potential harassment and publicity. Cameras are not routinely allowed in Minnesota courtrooms. 

Media get more seats, judge won't move to larger courtroom

The news organizations, through Walker, on Friday wrote a letter to Quaintance's boss — Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson — outlining concerns with limited press and public access to the case. 

Quaintance initially allowed eight journalists to reserve seats in the courtroom, with the rest relegated to an overflow room with audio and video feeds. Late Monday, the judge increased the number of seats to 15. Local media will get six seats; national and international outlets get nine. 

News organizations and the public have asked the court to move the trial to a larger courtroom, but Quaintance and Bernhardson did not fulfill that request Monday. 

The judges wrote the trial's current courtroom provides a "high level of judicial security and safety ... It also provides ready access to the trial judge's staff and chambers, which is vital to her effective handling of this high-profile case."

The trial is set to resume Wednesday with the arrival of potential jurors for questioning. It was not immediately clear Tuesday if or when the judge would take up the media organizations' concerns.