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Two Minnesota police shooting trials, two very different verdicts

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Mohamed Noor before the verdict is read in his trial
Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor enters the Hennepin County Government Center before the verdict is read in his trial on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Minnesota has seen two police officers face trial for fatal shootings while on duty. Each case had a different set of facts and resulted in opposite verdicts.

And prosecutors at each trial took a different tack.

Tuesday's conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor on murder and manslaughter charges is the first time an officer in the state has been found guilty of killing a civilian while on duty. But it's the second time an officer was prosecuted for such a crime.

Former St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter in 2017. His verdict of not guilty came just weeks before Noor shot and killed Justine Ruszczyk, also known as Justine Damond, after she called 911.

Police officer Jeronimo Yanez stands outside the Ramsey County Courthouse.
St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez stands outside the Ramsey County Courthouse while waiting for a ride Tuesday, May 30, 2017, in St. Paul, Minn. Jury selection began Tuesday in the trial of officer Yanez, charged with second-degree manslaughter in the death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights last July. The shooting of the black motorist generated national attention when the aftermath was streamed live on Facebook.
David Joles | Star Tribune via AP 2017

Key differences have emerged in how the two cases were prosecuted.

Spokespeople for the Hennepin and Ramsey County attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday. But one distinct difference in their approaches was the charges they decided to file against the officer in question.

Noor was charged with two murder counts and one manslaughter count, while Yanez was tried on the less severe charges of manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm.

Marsh Halberg, a criminal defense attorney who attended the Noor trial as an observer, said Hennepin County prosecutors in the Noor trial probably looked back at the experience of Ramsey County Attorney prosecutors in the Yanez trial as they planned their strategy.

It wouldn't surprise Halberg if Hennepin County prosecutors deliberately filed three serious charges, hoping that one would stick. 

"Prosecution work is like bird hunting," Halberg said. "You throw a bunch of pellets up in the air, you don't care what pellet brings the bird down. But you want to get something to land. The same thing here: You throw three counts up against Mr. Noor. In some ways, you don't care which one brings them down. They're all felonies. You just want something to land."

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman speaks at a press conference speaks after a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor guilty on two counts in the killing of Justine Ruszczyk.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The investigations into the Noor and Yanez cases were also different. Throughout the trial, Hennepin County prosecutors expressed frustration with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's review of the Ruszczyk shooting.

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office assigned its own investigators almost from the start to gather more evidence.

Halberg said that's an unusual step for a prosecutor to take.

"I think it's certainly a wake-up call for everybody involved in this case — law enforcement, investigative people, prosecutors, everybody else — that these cases are under the microscope now and will continue to be in the future," he said.

Prosecutors in the Noor case were aggressive even before the trial started.

Both trials included a defense expert witness, Emanuel Kapelsohn. But prosecutors in the Noor case were successful in limiting what he could testify about. The judge ruled he wasn't qualified to discuss the psychological effects of police shootings on officers.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said he was surprised a jury found Yanez was not guilty because he thought Ramsey County was equally aggressive in trying that case.

"And so a lot of us started to question: Is there this blue line or something that we just can't go over? And then [Hennepin County Attorney] Mike Freeman took this one and he convicted him," he said. "That tells us no, we can still seek justice when a cop commits some kind of gross malfeasance."

When prosecutors in the future are making decisions on charges against police officers, Halberg said he expects both prosecutors and defense attorneys to look back at what happened at these two trials.

"Both sides and everybody is going to be reading these transcripts, going, 'What did we learn from the Yanez trial? What did we learn from the Noor trial?'" said Halberg.

Noor is in custody and awaits sentencing on June 7. He faces a recommended prison sentence of 12.5 years.

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