Passenger: Officers didn't ID selves in fatal Winston Smith shooting

A cardboard sign with "Winston Smith" written on it, surrounded by candles.
Candles and flowers at vigil for Winston Smith on June 5. On Thursday, the passenger in Smith's car when he was fatally shot said through her attorneys that officers were not in uniform and did not identify themselves when they surrounded Smith's car with guns drawn.
Christian Monterrosa | AP

Norhan Askar, who was with Winston Smith, a Black man, when he was fatally shot by members of a U.S. Marshals Service task force during an arrest attempt last month said through her attorneys Thursday that the law enforcement officers were not in uniform and did not identify themselves as authorities when they surrounded the SUV with their guns drawn.

Askar was on a date with Smith and was sitting in an SUV in a Minneapolis parking ramp on June 3 when Smith was fatally shot as authorities were trying to arrest him on a weapons violation. Authorities have said Smith, 32, showed a handgun, and that evidence shows he fired it. Askar's attorneys said previously that she never saw a gun on Smith or in his vehicle.

Askar's attorneys reiterated Thursday that she never saw a gun, and they released additional information in advance of a planned lawsuit that they say will allege Askar's civil rights were violated. Askar did not appear at a news conference with her attorneys, Christopher Nguyen and Racey Rodne, but they released a statement on her behalf.

The attorneys said Askar met Smith through mutual friends, that they had known each other more than six months and had been dating for several weeks. They said Smith met Askar at another parking lot, and Smith changed his shirt, then they drove in his SUV to a parking ramp and went to a restaurant for lunch and drinks.

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The attorneys said the couple walked back to the SUV and got inside, “and were suddenly surrounded by unmarked cars and people with guns.”

“These people were dressed in neither sheriff nor peace officer uniforms. They yelled commands and did not announce themselves as law enforcement of any kind,” the attorneys said. “While yelling commands for them to put their hands up, multiple armed people targeted their weapons upon her and Mr. Smith.”

Askar's attorneys said that she was “scared for her life” and complied, and that Smith had a mobile phone and began to record for Facebook Live.

“As he raised the phone all she could hear was gunfire and saw Winston Smith slump over,” the attorneys said.

They said Askar was pulled out of the SUV, handcuffed and put in the back of an unmarked car. She stayed in handcuffs until paramedics gave her medical attention. The attorneys said an officer later asked her how her date was.

Askar experienced trauma from seeing Smith fatally shot next to her, and she is still healing from injuries she received when she was sprayed by broken glass, her attorneys said. She also experiences anxiety when she is in a car.

Smith died of multiple gunshot wounds after a Ramsey County sheriff's deputy and a Hennepin County sheriff's deputy who were members of the task force fired their weapons. Both deputies were working in an undercover capacity so their names are barred from being released under state law, state investigators have said.

State investigators have said they are unaware of any video of the incident. Investigators said there is no body camera or squad camera footage, and they are unaware of surveillance video. It was not immediately clear if Smith recorded any Facebook video before he was shot.

Local officials say the deputies were assigned body cameras but were told by the U.S. Marshals Service that they could not use them, despite an October change in Justice Department policy that would have allowed them to be used. The issue led the Ramsey County, Hennepin County and others to pull his deputies off the task force until body cameras are authorized.

The lack of body camera footage has raised questions in Minnesota, as Smith’s family members and activists continue to demand transparency. Askar’s attorneys also called for transparency Thursday, saying that the effort to get around these accountability measures is "an affront to the rule of law."

Askar's attorneys also said law enforcement has a duty to announce themselves, and using undercover officers to execute an arrest warrant — knowing they are required to announce themselves — is a “clear display of incompetence.”

They said that the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has said it failed to take gunshot residue samples from Smith's body, which was washed by the medical examiner. They said such evidence would exonerate Smith.

“We ask the public to join us in demanding better and holding law enforcement to a higher standard because all Minnesotans deserve to have trust and confidence in law enforcement agencies and agents,” they said.

Smith was shot as Minneapolis was already on edge since the death of George Floyd over a year ago, and the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright by an officer in nearby Brooklyn Center in April.