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Did race color the Noor verdict? Question lingers for some

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Noor leaves the Hennepin County Government Center after closing arguments
Ex-cop Mohamed Noor leaves the Hennepin County Government Center on April 29, 2019.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News file

Race surfaced in subtle and not-so-subtle ways during the trial of Mohamed Noor. As the ex-Minneapolis police officer awaits sentencing for killing 911 caller Justine Ruszczyk, some believe racial dynamics at the trial drove an unequal justice.

Noor, a black man of Somali descent and Muslim faith, killed Ruszczyk, a white, unarmed woman in a relatively affluent Minneapolis neighborhood. A jury last week found him guilty of murder and manslaughter — the first time a Minnesota police officer was convicted of killing someone in the line of duty.

Some saw the verdict as a victory against the police use of excessive force. Such convictions are rare in Minnesota and across the country. But in the verdict's wake, the question for some activists and community members isn't why Noor was convicted — it's why other police officers who shot black men were not convicted.

The conclusion they draw: The color of the person shot makes a difference in the justice that follows, and it reinforces how black men are treated differently in the criminal justice system, regardless of whether they are the victims or the shooters.

"You look at the numbers ... our lives are not the same. They're valued differently," said Hassanen Mohamed, a Brooklyn Park planning commissioner who's been discussing the Noor trial on social media.

The city of Minneapolis awarded Ruszczyk's family $20 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit shortly after the verdict, a record amount for a police misconduct case in Minnesota.

"When you get a white person getting high amount of money for settlement than a person of color it creates inequality in the sense that justice is different," Mohamed said.

'Harmlessness and whiteness'

This case is complicated, no doubt.

The July 15, 2017 incident began after Ruszczyk, who was also known as Justine Damond, called police that night to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her Minneapolis home.

Noor, one of the responding officers, shot and killed her as she approached the police squad vehicle where Noor and his partner, officer Matthew Harrity, sat. Noor shot once from the passenger side, through the driver's side window, hitting Ruszczyk.

"It's a tragedy, but it's not a crime," Noor attorney Thomas Plunkett told jurors.

Prosecution witnesses said Noor shooting from inside the car, across his partner, at an unarmed civilian whose hands he could not see, was clearly not an appropriate use of force. The jury, including five people of color and one indigenous man, agreed.

"I think if Noor had been caucasian — and the victim had been a black individual or a Hmong or some other minority — I think based on the facts of the case and the law, I think that person would've been charged also," said Larry Brubaker, a former FBI agent who's been tracking police shooting cases in Minnesota since 1981.

But there were other points in the courtroom where observers saw race quietly at play.

Aisha Ghani, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota who studies issues at the intersection of religion, race and law, said she was "waiting for moments where there might be a gesture, where there might be a statement that would bring everything that was a subtext, race, religion, class, gender."

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy giving closing argument.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy speaks to the jury with a photo of Justine Ruszczyk on TV in the background in her closing argument.
Cedric Hohnstadt for MPR News file

She said she found them sprinkled throughout the trial.

The most memorable, she said, happened during Noor's testimony as prosecutor Amy Sweasy pressed him about the danger he said he perceived in the 40-year-old Ruszczyk, asking Noor: "The whole blonde hair, pink T-shirt and all is a threat to you?"

Sweasy later clarified that it was Noor's description. He described the threat as a blonde-haired woman.

Ghani, though, saw it as a powerful comment.

"It was interesting to see that harmlessness and whiteness — blondeness to be specific — came up as a self-evident claim," she said. "You have to think about then what would that have meant, had the victim been black. Would the prosecution had been able to use that line as a self-evident claim?"

There were also a number of times where safety came up, highlighting the role class played.

Prosecutors painted a picture of Ruszczyk's Fulton neighborhood as a quiet, safe place where homicides are rare. At least two witnesses testified that they were surprised that a shooting would happen in the affluent southwest part of the city, as opposed to the north side, which is heavily African-American.

"Had this taken place in a largely black community where the crime rate was higher, what would that mean for the prosecution's argument?" Ghani asked. "That didn't get said. But that's how race works implicitly."

'Never been a factor'

Just two officers in Minnesota have ever been charged in a shooting death. Both are people of color. The other one, Jeronimo Yanez, was acquitted of manslaughter in Ramsey County in 2017.

Nationally, it's been rare to find officers who have been convicted of murder in the last decade. According to data collected by Bowling Green State University, officers typically receive more lenient sentences.

Haissan Hussein, a Metro Transit police officer and president of the 32-member Somali American Police Association, said he's been fielding calls since the verdict from people baffled that Noor, who'll be sentenced in June, was charged and then convicted of third-degree murder, even though he was a police officer.

"The entire community is wondering why are we even continuing to be in this career if we are not given fair chances," Hussein said.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Don Damond
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, flanked by Don Damond, speaks after a jury found Noor guilty on two counts in the killing of Justine Ruszczyk.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

And when prosecutors shed light on missteps in the shooting investigation by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, it raised questions about other police shootings investigated by the same agency, where the victims were black and the officer was white. There were no charges in those cases.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman strongly denied that race played a role in Noor's prosecution.

"Race has never been a factor in any of my decisions, it never will be," he told reporters after the verdict. "This office is a diverse office, we undergo training, we talk about the right thing to do every day."