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Noor trial: Closing arguments done, case goes to jury

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Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor leaves court Thursday.
Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, right, leaves the Hennepin County Government Center with his attorneys Thomas Plunkett, left, and Peter Wold, center, on Thursday after testifying in his own defense.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated 2:34 p.m. | Posted 4 a.m.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys finished their closing arguments Monday in the trial of Mohamed Noor, leaving jurors to decide the fate of the ex-Minneapolis officer charged in the killing of 911 caller Justine Ruszczyk.

Noor is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of Ruszczyk, who'd called to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her home on July 15, 2017. 

She was shot and killed by Noor, one of the officers responding to her call that night.

In her closing arguments Monday, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy emphasized the tragic circumstances around the killing. 

She highlighted inconsistencies in testimony between Noor and his partner that night, officer Matthew Harrity, especially on the question of whether Harrity had problems drawing his gun. "They both can't be right," she said.

Sweasy pointed out that officers at the scene kept looking for a reason for the shooting. Then "silence started to set in."

She told the jury that the Noor case was "tragedy compounded" atop tragedy and offered "absolutely no recovery and no healing ... Ms. Ruszczyk, 40 years old, is gone."

This sketch shows ex-cop Mohamed Noor's trial on Friday, April 26, 2019.
A sketch of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor testifying on Friday.
Cedric Hohnstadt for MPR News

Defense attorney Thomas Plunkett began his closing remarks by smacking a courtroom table, shouting and pointing his finger as if firing a gun. 

"That's the whole case right there," he said. 

Noor's defense attorneys have argued through the trial that he fired to protect his terrified partner after hearing a thump on the squad and then seeing a figure by the driver's side window raising an arm.

Prosecutors say the thump was a story made up later and that Ruszczyk, approaching the squad in her pajamas, could not have been considered a threat.

Plunkett told jurors the prosecution provided "lots of testimony but not necessarily a lot of evidence" to convict Noor. "Regardless of your decision, Mr. Noor is going to have to live with the fact the he took an innocent life. He will have to live with that. It's a tragedy but it's not a crime."

Judge Kathryn Quaintance told the jurors they should consider whether Noor was justified in using deadly force based on what he knew when he fired his gun.

The jury has been sequestered.

Really a threat?

Ruszczyk's death sent shock waves across the United States and her home country of Australia. Some of her family members flew to Minnesota and have attended every day of the lengthy trial, watching from the gallery as police body camera  videos of her last moments were presented, and as Noor took the stand to testify in his own defense. 

Minneapolis police officer Matthew Harrity
Minneapolis police officer Matthew Harrity testified Thursday he heard a "thump" and a "murmur" in the alley and worried of a possible ambush before his partner, officer Mohamed Noor, shot and killed 911 caller Justine Ruszczyk.
Cedric Hohnstadt for MPR News

Both sides used closing arguments to stitch together pieces of evidence they've presented the jury the past few weeks to craft a narrative arguing for or against the charges. 

Last week, the defense called two of Ruszczyk's neighbors to the stand, who testified they heard noises in the area around the same time. One woman said she heard what sounded like a garbage can falling, then a pop. The testimonies give credence to the defense's argument that Noor and his partner heard a thump that startled them.

On Monday, though, the prosecution described the bang on the car as a theory that originated with other officers who arrived at the scene and were struggling to understand how the shooting could have happened. 

She said neither officer mentioned a noise until Noor's partner talked with state investigators three days later, and there was no conclusive proof Ruszczyk ever touched the car.

Last week, Sweasy pressed Noor on the stand when he testified that he shot at a "threat" to protect his partner.

"The whole blonde hair, pink T-shirt and all is a threat to you?" she asked. 

Noor repeatedly said he was protecting his partner, acted according to his training and that he considered the totality of circumstances: the thump, potential for ambush, and a person raising her arm. 

His testimony was supported by the defense expert witness, Emanuel Kapelsohn, who testified that officers don't have time to give commands before a suspect shoots.

"If you wait to see the gun appear," Kapelsohn said, "you're going to be shot with it."

Prosecutors challenged his credibility and questioned him in length about a case in Milwaukee where he testified against a police officer who used deadly force on a man who was resisting arrest. 

Kapelsohn also told the jury the only way the shot would've cleared the bottom of the open driver's side window was with Noor rising up off of his seat, extending his right arm and shooting. 

Outside the presence of the jury, prosecutor Patrick Lofton said last week the evidence goes to the intent and credibility of Noor who's been presented as "a hero saving Harrity."

Prosecutors have presented forensic evidence that showed Ruszczyk's fingerprints weren't found on the squad car, suggesting she never made contact with it, therefore giving the officers no reason to be startled. 

They called two use of force experts who were critical of Noor. Former Charlottesville, Va., police chief Tim Longo said Noor's actions were unreasonable. 

"At the end of the day," he said of Ruszczyk, "this is a citizen who called the police seeking a public service, who has every right to go out (to the squad) and be sure that her community is safe."

Complicated charges

The charges against Noor when taken together are complex. 

As courtroom attorneys seek to prove or disprove one charge, they undermine the case regarding  another. 

For example: Noor testified he rose up from his seat, put his left arm on his partner's chest, presumably to protect him, and extended his right arm to fire at a specific person who he described clearly as a blonde woman in a pink shirt. This defends him against the third-degree murder charge, which has an element of a depraved mind. That is, someone shooting without knowing who their target is. 

It doesn't help his defense against the second-degree, intentional murder, although as a police officer, he was authorized to use deadly force in certain situations. Protecting a partner would be one of those situations.

In closing arguments, the prosecution, however, could argue that the intentional act of shooting a 911 caller was negligent. 

The prosecution has presented evidence to show no gunshot residue was found on Harrity's uniform. Noor testified that he was trained to fire until the threat was gone. But he also said he got out of the squad car and, with Harrity, helped Ruszczyk to the ground.

Prosecutors seized on that to try and prove recklessness, which also goes to unintentional murder, as well as the manslaughter count. 

The jury could have a hard time dissecting each of these counts, and doing it while weighing testimony from several police officers and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agents the prosecution criticized for the way they investigated the case.

The second-degree murder and third-degree murder charges are tough to prove, said criminal defense attorney Marsh Halberg, especially against a police officer. 

Halberg, who attended most of the trial proceedings, said the defense has painted a vivid picture of two police officers worried about their safety — a "you weren't there" kind of situation. 

"Had it been a firearm, he would've been a hero because he would've saved his partner's life," Halberg said. "Generally people are supportive of law enforcement."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.