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Reporter's notebook: Why are journalists fighting for release of evidence from the Noor trial?

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

Local journalism organizations are tangling with some of the biggest government bodies in the state. At stake is the public's access to evidence from the trial of the first Minnesota police officer to be convicted for killing someone in the line of duty.

The most controversial piece of evidence is police body camera footage of Justine Ruszczyk's agonized last breaths after the unarmed woman was shot by then-Minneapolis police officer Noor in July 2017. News organizations are also fighting to get copies of forensic reports and other documents presented to the jury as evidence.

The bodycam footage is excruciating to watch. As a reporter covering the trial, I saw all the videos played in the courtroom, in front of a jury, the attorneys, Noor and the families seated in the public gallery.

Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance, who presided over the case, said in court that she doesn't know who would want to watch these videos, other than people who watch "snuff films." And we, at MPR News, have no plans to exploit graphic footage of Ruszczyk's final moments.

That raises the question: If the videos are so terrible, why are journalism organizations fighting to get the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, the Minneapolis police and the Department of Public Safety to release data presented as evidence during trial?

The judge has already granted the media an opportunity to view the evidence, but not copy it. Why are we pressing her to release copies?

The battle for public data is not a topic that's widely discussed these days, as the journalism industry shrinks under economic pressure and withers under attacks by politicians. But American journalists, at their best, see their role as advocating for transparency on the public's behalf from powerful government institutions.

I was in the courtroom every day covering the trial for MPR News. The most shocking part of the trial was how prosecutors — who usually are working on the same side as the cops — aggressively criticized the actions of Minneapolis police and state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which were tasked with securing the scene and investigating why Ruszczyk died in this terrible way.

Prosecutors presented evidence that Minneapolis police officers who responded to the scene after Ruszczyk's death didn't cooperate with the investigation. And they argued that BCA investigators weren't thorough and initially gave police officers special treatment.

But now the trial is over. These government bodies have closed ranks, and each is refusing to release evidence from the trial.

There is more for the public to learn from the evidence in this case about how these government bodies conducted themselves in the public's name, and to what extent they may have failed the public, Ruszczyk's family, and maybe even Noor himself.

Getting that information to the public is the fundamental job of American journalists.

First attempt to block public access to 'crucial' evidence

Even before the trial began, there were efforts to restrict the public's access to information that's required to be public.

At the final pretrial hearing, Judge Quaintance told prosecutors and Noor's defense attorneys that she planned to position the televisions in the courtroom so members of the public could not see the screens while graphic evidence was being presented.

Quaintance called the footage of Ruszczyk's final moments both "inflammatory" and "emotional."

Hennepin County Judge Kathryn Quaintance
Hennepin County Judge Kathryn Quaintance is presiding over the Mohamed Noor murder case beginning April 1, 2019. Noor, a former Minneapolis police officer, is charged in the killing of Justine Ruszczyk in 2017.
Hennepin County Courts

"It shows the deceased in extremely compromising situations," Quaintance said in court. "I don't see any value in that being shown outside the people directly involved in the case."

Leaders at news organizations, including the Star Tribune and MPR News, saw Quaintance's ruling as not just infringing on their reporters' ability to do their jobs, but as depriving the public of the ability to observe what the judge herself described as "crucial" evidence in a case of such monumental public interest.

The coalition of journalism organizations hired lawyers and fought the judge's ruling to restrict the evidence from public view.

Media coalition attorney Leita Walker argued that journalists are present to ensure a fair and open trial, and to serve as a proxy for the public. She argued that shielding the evidence from public view was unprecedented.

The office of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who was re-elected in November, sided with the judge. Prosecutor Amy Sweasy argued that the journalism coalition's arguments about the videos "feels a little bit like entertainment."

Despite Quaintance's strong feelings on the issue, she lifted the restrictions, saying she had to follow the law, even if she disagreed with it. When issuing her order, she said she wanted to protect "vulnerable moments" like those shown in the video from "prurient interests and from tabloid grandstanding."

High security at the Noor trial

From the very start, the court's relationship with the public and journalists was strained.

Quaintance ordered an extensive security checkpoint on the 19th floor of the government center during the trial. Anyone, journalists or members of the public, who wanted to attend the public proceedings was required to check any electronic devices, including Fitbits, with security guards. Even though there's already a security checkpoint at the government center's entrance, the judge ordered the setup of metal detectors on the 19th floor.

Every time a court hearing started, and following every short break, there was a line of shoeless reporters and members of the public waiting to be let through the checkpoint. Security guards wearing surgical gloves rifled through purses, notebooks and wallets. They even uncapped my pens and my colleague's eyeliner.

The security setup made it challenging for reporters to do their jobs. During courtroom breaks, there were only a few minutes to retrieve our phones from security, take the elevator to another floor and send courtroom updates back to our newsrooms. The case attracted international attention, and the public expected timely reporting.

Those security restrictions were uncomfortable, inconvenient and certainly not welcoming to the public, but they were well within the judge's rights under the law.

Inside the courtroom at Mohamed Noor's trial on Monday, April 2, 2019.
This sketch shows inside the courtroom for ex-Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor's trial on Tuesday, April 2, 2019. Noor is charged in the 2017 killing of 911 caller Justine Ruszczyk.
Nancy Muellner for MPR News

But the restrictions led University of Minnesota media ethics and law professor Jane Kirtley to tell the Star Tribune that "there's been a deliberate decision made here to limit access by the press and public."

Government agencies play hot potato with public records

Fighting to get access to information is not separate from my daily job. As reporters, we try to pry information out of the hands of big, powerful institutions all the time. They sometimes don't want to give it up, even when state law requires some information to always be available to the public.

As soon as the trial started, journalists, myself included, filed requests for documents tied to the case that were presented as evidence.

Government bodies in Minnesota are governed by what's called the Minnesota Data Practices Act. It's a bland name for the set of statutes that's supposed to require the government to open up data it collects to members of the public, including journalists. The courts are governed by other rules in releasing information.

In practice, government agencies have little incentive to comply with data requests that could make them or others in their sphere look bad. The law hasn't been substantially updated in a long time. It's an awkward fit for an evolving digital world where investigators can swap messages on phone apps without creating any permanent record or paper trail. Government agencies also complain regularly that they can't keep up with the number of records requests from the public.

I asked the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Minneapolis Police Department and the Hennepin County Attorney's office to release evidence presented at the trial. Under the law, our position is the information is public. But so far, the agencies have passed the buck and pointed fingers at one another, arguing that it's up to another government entity or the judge to release the information.

When requests for public records run into a wall, and arguments and pleas to the agencies have failed, there aren't many options. It's rare, and costly, to get lawyers involved. But it does happen.  

MPR News has joined again with the Star Tribune to challenge these agencies on their right to withhold public documents. Walker, the media attorney, put the Minneapolis police, the state BCA and the Hennepin County Attorney's Office on notice in letters last Tuesday.

Leita Walker is an entertainment and media lawyer in Minneapolis.
Leita Walker, a lawyer with Ballard Spahr's Media and Entertainment Law Group, is representing a coalition of Twin Cities media outlets in the Mohamed Noor murder case. The media group, which includes MPR News, argue the judge is violating its First Amendment rights in her rulings related to access.
Courtesy of Leita Walker | Ballard Spahr

Walker wrote that Noor was convicted of "manslaughter and third-degree murder for the on-duty killing of an unarmed woman." She pointed out that Minneapolis has settled with Ruszczyk's family for $20 million, and that the Hennepin County Attorney himself has publicly complained that Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agents did not adequately investigate the circumstances of her death.

Despite all those signs that the government's response to Ruszczyk's death had deep problems, Minneapolis police and the Hennepin County Attorney's Office refuse "to release clearly public data so that a concerned public is able to scrutinize the conduct of law enforcement and other government officials," Walker wrote. "Refusal to respond in any meaningful way to Star Tribune's and MPR's data requests is appalling."

In letters responding to the ones Walker sent, Minneapolis and the Hennepin County Attorney's Office have argued that they're not required to release records that were made public in court.

The county attorney's office has argued that "data created, used, and collected by attorneys acting for the State in criminal prosecution are exempted from the requirements of the Data Practices Act." For its part, the city of Minneapolis says it has no knowledge of what prosecutors presented as evidence.

Quaintance has scheduled an opportunity on Friday for journalists to inspect evidence from the trial. The media coalition has filed a brief with the court that argues for copying the exhibits. The judge has not yet ruled on that issue.  

American journalism has more than its share of tabloid sensationalism and public mistrust. But the core value of American journalism, enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, is the responsibility to hold powerful institutions accountable to the public. That's what media organizations, and the reporters who work for them, are trying to do in pushing for evidence to be released in this case.

That's our job.