Updated 5:33 p.m.
The Minnesota Supreme Court has thrown out the third-degree murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, saying the evidence is “insufficient” to maintain it.
Noor was convicted of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, a lesser charge, for the 2017 killing of 911 caller Justine Ruszczyk. He was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison — standard for third-degree murder.
The justices’ ruling means Noor must now be sentenced on second-degree manslaughter, the lesser charge. On Wednesday, his lawyer said Noor could be out of prison by the end of October under sentencing guidelines for that charge.
In appealing the third-degree murder conviction, his attorneys had focused on language in the rarely used statute that speaks of “perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.”
The charge is often used against drug dealers in overdose deaths where the defendant didn't single out a particular victim.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld Noor's conviction, ruling that the third-degree murder charge applied even though Noor fired his gun at a specific person.
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However, in its ruling posted Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court said “the mental state necessary for depraved-mind murder … is a generalized indifference to human life,” which the court said did not exist in this instance.
Noor fatally shot Ruszczyk, also known as Justine Damond, in July 2017 after she called 911 to report what she thought was a possible sexual assault happening in the alley behind her south Minneapolis home.
He had been riding in the passenger seat of his squad car when he and his partner, Matthew Harrity, responded to the call. Harrity later told investigators that they heard a thump while they were idling in the alley near Ruszczyk's house.
Ruszczyk briefly appeared near the driver-side window, he said, and that's when Noor fired one shot, killing her.
Jurors acquitted Noor on the most serious count he faced, second-degree intentional murder.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office prosecuted Noor, said he was disappointed in the ruling and disagreed with the justices’ legal analysis but acknowledged the high court has the final word.
Freeman noted that the case is being returned to the trial court for sentencing, adding: “We will seek the maximum sentence possible.”
Noor attorney Peter Wold applauded the Minnesota Supreme Court ruling.
"He's just extremely grateful,” Wold said of Noor. “He's extremely, obviously, relieved. And he's anxious to get home to his young family."
Wold believes that the court's ruling more narrowly defines the charge. "If the object is a single person, third degree doesn't apply. It couldn't be more clear than that," Wold said.
Don Damond, Ruszczyk’s fiancé, called the ruling a “double blow against justice.” In a statement to The Associated Press he said that since the killing he has worked to try to prevent more fatalities at the hands of "stressed and inadequately trained police officers.”
He said the Minneapolis Police Department hasn't made any real progress toward change, and now Noor is not being held accountable for his fiancée's killing.
“I have lived with the tragic loss of Justine and none of this can hurt my heart more than it has been, but now it truly feels like there has been no justice for Justine,” he said.
Influence on Derek Chauvin’s conviction?
The Minnesota Supreme Court ruling may hold implications for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was also convicted of third-degree murder, as well as second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the 2020 killing of George Floyd.
During Chauvin's trial, Judge Peter Cahill struck the third-degree murder charge, saying it required that the defendant's action be focused on more than one person.
But the Minnesota Court of Appeals decision on Noor's case forced the judge to reinstate the third-degree murder charge for Chauvin.
Because second-degree murder is the most serious charge, it's the only charge that Chauvin was sentenced on.
Even if Noor's successful appeal led to the reversal of Chauvin's third-degree murder conviction, his sentence would remain the same unless his second-degree murder conviction was also overturned.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.