Justices to decide if charge fits Minneapolis police killing

Mohamed Noor walks to the podium to be sentenced
Mohamed Noor walks to the podium to be sentenced in the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk in Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis June 7, 2019.
Leila Navidi | Star Tribune 2019

Updated: 11:55 a.m.

The Minnesota Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in the case of Mohamed Noor, a former Minneapolis police officer who was convicted of third-degree murder in the shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk, who had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault behind her house.

Noor’s attorney Caitlinrose Fisher said that the former officer made a “tragic split-second mistake” when he reacted to a sudden perceived threat outside of his partner’s window.

Fisher told the court that the defense is not asking to overturn Noor’s manslaughter conviction.

“This case should be manslaughter,” Fisher said. “That is still a very significant crime.”

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But Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Jean Burdorf argued that this charge applies when a person commits an eminently dangerous act without regard for human life and that it’s not necessarily about hurting a specific person versus endangering many people in the process.

Burdorf added that if the Minnesota Supreme Court agrees with Noor, it would mean no police officer in the state can ever be prosecuted under the third-degree murder depraved mind statute because all police killings are directed at one person.

She argued that Noor acted with indifference to Ruszczyk’s life, even if he was trying to protect himself and his partner. Noor had testified at his trial that he saw a "figure" show up at the driver's side of the squad car before he fired.

“When he pulled the trigger of that gun and fired out that window at the silhouette, which again is not a particular person, that’s not a targeted individual, that’s just a silhouette,” Burdorf said.

But Noor is arguing that his manslaughter conviction alone should be enough punishment for the crime. Fisher, his attorney, emphasized that his actions following the shooting, where he was visibly upset, remorseful and attempting to save Ruszczyk’s life, show he did not act with a depraved mind.

“Mr. Noor performed CPR on Ms. Ruszczyk, he comforted Ms. Ruszczyk, he tried to save. Ms. Ruszczyk’s life,” she said. “Mohamed Noor did not act with a depraved mind. Mohamed Noor was not indifferent to human life.”

This subdivision of third-degree murder in Minnesota is rare and has come to the forefront in recent months in light of the Derek Chauvin trial. There is case law that supports both sides of the argument and Burdorf, the state prosecutor, urged the justices to clarify.

“So we have this confusion, I think it exists and we have to acknowledge it. The solution is to go back to the fundamentals,” Burdorf said. “Common law depraved mind murder included not just acts that endangered many.”

The Minnesota Supreme Court Justices did not issue a ruling immediately.