A US police officer who shot and killed Australian woman Justine Ruszczyk Damond last year after she’d called 911 to report a disturbance near her home has been charged with murder and manslaughter.
Officer Mohamed Noor handed himself in and is now in custody on $500,000 bail following the deadly shooting last July 15 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Noor, 32, has not yet spoken to investigators about the incident or commented publicly.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said Noor was charged with one count of third-degree murder and one count of second-degree manslaughter over the death. Both offences attract a minimum sentence of three years.
Freeman said prosecutors have a “second-by-second account of what happened the night of July 15” as well as the training Noor and his partner Matthew Harrity received before being hired by the Minneapolis Police Department.
Damond, 40, originally from Sydney, was due to marry US businessman Don Damond last August, and called police at 11:27pm on that Saturday night, saying she could hear a woman who sounded “distressed” and was “not sure sure if she’s having sex or being raped”.
“I think she just yelled out ‘help’ but it’s difficult the sound has been going on for a while, but I think, I don’t think she’s enjoying it,” Damond told the operator.
The two officers arrived at the scene in a squad car three minutes later. At 11.40pm Damond, who was in her pyjamas and unarmed, was shot as she approached the police car. She died from a single gunshot would to the abdomen.
“In the short time between when Ms. Damond Ruszczyk approached the squad car and the time that he fired the fatal shot, there is no evidence that Officer Noor encountered a threat, appreciated a threat, investigated a threat, or confirmed a threat that justified the decision to use deadly force,” Freeman said announcing the charges today.
The investigation into the incident was hampered by the fact that neither officer had their body camera on until after the shooting and the police car camera was also off.
The complaint lodged with the District Count outlines what happened on the night.
Harrity and Noor’s squad car had entered the alley on 50th Street heading south at 11:37:40 p.m. Officer Harrity turned off the headlights and dimmed the computer screen as they drove down the alley, but used his spotlight to look for people on the driver’s side of the car, which was the side of the alley directly behind 5024 Washburn [Damond’s house]. The driver’s side window was all the way down.
Officer Harrity was not wearing his seatbelt and had removed the safety hood of his holster over his gun before turning into the alley. Officer Harrity heard what he believed to be the sound of a dog in a house on his side of the alley before reaching the rear of 5024 Washburn but did not get out of the car to investigate. Officer Harrity heard no other noises. Officer Noor did not get out of the car in the alley. The squad car slowed to 2 mph in the alley but never stopped behind 5024 Washburn. The officers did not encounter any people while driving through the alley.
The squad car neared the end of the alley at 51st Street at 11:39:34 p.m., 1 minute and 56 seconds after arriving at the other end of the alley and 24 seconds after Ms. Ruszczyk and Mr. Damond ended their last phone call. At that time, Officer Noor entered “Code 4” into the squad computer, which communicates to dispatch and other officers that the officers were safe and needed no assistance. The squad car picked up speed to 8 mph and moved to the end of the alley where Officer Harrity turned the lights back on and told Officer Noor they were going to back up officers on another call in the 5th Precinct as soon as a bicyclist passed them. The bicyclist was approaching Xerxes on 51st and would have been to the officers’ right side.
A couple leaving a party at a nearby residence was walking to their car and heard a gunshot. Surveillance video of the couple, which does not capture the shooting, establishes that the shot was fired after 11:40:15pm.
The complaint says Noor was hired in March 2015 and “had no prior law enforcement experience”. Harrity was hired in January, 2016.Both officers “were trained in numerous scenarios intended to teach them to identify a target and its threat, if any, before shooting at it” the complaint says.
It continues the details of the fatal night, saying:
Five to 10 seconds after Officer Noor entered Code 4 into the computer, Officer Harrity heard a voice, a thump somewhere behind him on the squad car, and caught a glimpse of a person’s head and shoulders outside his window. He was not able to articulate what the noise was, how loud it was, what the person’s voice sounded like, or what the person said.
He characterized the voice as a muffled voice or a whisper. He could not see whether the person was a male, female, adult, or child. He could not see the person’s hands from the driver’s seat and estimated that the person was two feet away from him. He saw no weapons. Officer Harrity said he was startled and said, “Oh sh*t” or “Oh Jesus.” He said he perceived that his life was in danger, reached for his gun, un-holstered it, and held it to his ribcage while pointing it downward. He said that from the driver’s seat he had a better vantage point to determine a threat than Officer Noor would have had from the passenger seat.
Officer Harrity then heard a sound that sounded like a light bulb dropping on the floor and saw a flash. After first checking to see if he had been shot, he looked to his right and saw Officer Noor with his right arm extended in the direction of Officer Harrity.
Officer Harrity said he did not see Officer Noor’s gun. Officer Harrity stated that he looked out his window on his left and saw a woman. The woman put her hands on a gunshot wound on the left side of her abdomen and said, “I’m dying” or “I’m dead.”
Officer Harrity said that once he saw the woman’s hands he believed her to no longer be a threat and he got out of the squad car.
The woman was far enough away from the car that Officer Harrity was able to open his door and get out.
Officer Noor got out of the passenger side still carrying his handgun; Officer Harrity told him to re-holster his gun and turn his body worn camera on.
Body worn camera video captured a conversation between Officer Harrity and his supervising sergeant at the scene. Officer Harrity told the sergeant that they were on a call and were getting ready to clear and go to another call when “she came up on the side out of nowhere.” He said “we both got spooked” and that he had his gun out. He said Officer Noor “pulled out and fired.” Officer Harrity did not mention hearing a voice or hearing a noise before the shot was fired.
Given that it would have taken several seconds for Officer Noor to get out of the squad car and walk around to where Ms. Ruszczyk lay in the alley, the shot was fired less than 14 seconds after 11:40:15 p.m. There is no evidence that, in that short timeframe, Officer Noor encountered, appreciated, investigated, or confirmed a threat that justified the decision to use deadly force. Instead, Officer Noor recklessly and intentionally fired his handgun from the passenger seat, a location at which he would have been less able than Officer Harrity to see and hear events on the other side of the squad car.
Freeman said it took eight months for charges to be laid because officers “refused to answer questions” and had to be subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury.
Justine Damond’s family released a statement saying: “we are pleased with the way a grand jury and County Attorney Mike Freeman appear to have been diligent and thorough in investigating and ultimately determining that these charges are justified”.
Five days after the shooting, Minneapolis police chief Janee Harteau resigned at the request of the mayor, Betsy Hodges, who said she’d lost confidence in the city’s top cop in the wake of the Damond shooting.
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