MINNEAPOLIS: A former Minneapolis police officer who shot and killed an unarmed woman who had called 911 said Friday he “knew in an instant that I was wrong” and apologised to her family, just moments before a judge brushed off a defence request for leniency and ordered him to prison for 12-and-half years.
The stiff sentence for Mohammad Noor capped a case that had been fraught by race from the start.
Noor, a Somali American, shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a white, upper-middle-class dual citizen of the US and Australia, when she approached his squad car in the alley behind her home in July 2017.
Noor, 33, testified at trial that a loud bang on the squad car startled him and his partner and that he fired to protect his partner’s life.
But prosecutors criticised Noor for shooting without seeing a weapon or Damond’s hands, and in April, a jury convicted him of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Some people in Minneapolis’ large Somali community and the larger black community argued the case was handled differently from police shootings across the country in which the victims were black and the officers were white.
And Noor’s conviction came after Jeronimo Yanez, a Latino officer, was cleared of manslaughter in the 2016 death of black motorist Philando Castile in a nearby suburb.
Ahmad Nur carried a sign at the courthouse that had the words “Black, Muslim, Immigrant and Guilty” with boxes checked next to each word. He said he doubted a white officer would have been treated the same in Noor’s situation.
“There will be many cases after this where a white officer kills a black kid. It will happen,” Nur said. “Then what are you gonna do? Because now we set a precedent saying if you kill someone, you will be prosecuted. You will go to jail. Are you going to do the same things for those cops?”
Friday’s sentencing was marked by emotional statements from Noor, Damond’s fiance and his son, and her family in Australia, who said they continue to struggle with the loss of a kind and generous person who had filled their lives with joy and laughter. Damond was a 40-year-old life coach who was due to be married a month after her death.
Noor, his voice breaking several times as he spoke publicly about the shooting for the first time, apologised repeatedly to Damond and her family for “taking the life of such a perfect person.”
“I have lived with this and I’ll continue to live with this,” Noor said. “I caused this tragedy and it is my burden. I wish though that I could relieve that burden others feel from the loss that I caused. I cannot, and that is a troubling reality for me.”
Noor said he was horrified to see Damond’s body on the ground.
“The depth of my error has only increased from that moment on,” he said. “Working to save her life and watching her slip away is a feeling I can’t explain. I can say it leaves me sad, it leaves me numb, and a feeling of incredibly lonely. But none of that, none of those words, capture what it truly feels like.”
Noor’s attorneys had argued for a sentence as light as probation, but Judge Kathryn Quaintance swept that aside for a term identical to state sentencing guidelines.
“The act may have been based on a miscalculation, but it was an intentional act,” Quaintance said. “Good people sometimes do bad things.”
It’s rare for police officers to be charged for on-duty shootings, let alone convicted. Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who has tracked the arrests from on-duty police shootings from 2005-2019, said only three other officers have been convicted of murder in that period, with an average sentence almost identical to Noor’s.
Nineteen other officers convicted of manslaughter in that period had an average sentence of six years and two months, he said.
Noor is the only Minnesota officer to be convicted in an on-duty shooting in recent history.
Tom Plunkett, Noor’s attorney, had asked Quaintance for a sentence as lenient as probation. He described Noor’s desire to become a police officer in part to repay a debt he felt to the country that took him in long ago as a refugee.
“I have never stood up at sentencing with anyone my entire career that’s done more or worked harder to be a good person, to earn the gifts he’s been given,” Plunkett said. “That’s who Mohammad Noor is.”
But prosecutor Amy Sweasy called for the recommended 12-and-half years. She noted that Damond had called 911 seeking help.
“And it was the defendant’s responsibility when he encountered her in that alley to investigate and appreciate and discern that before he pulled the trigger,” she said. “That was his responsibility, and his failure to do that is what resulted in the criminal act.”
Justine’s father, John Ruszczyk, in a statement read in court, asked for the maximum sentence and called her killing “an obscene act by an agent of the state.”
Don Damond, Justine Damond’s fiance, said in court Friday that every time he sees the alley where she walked barefoot and in her pyjamas toward the police car he relives the moment.
“In my mind I beg you to turn around,” he said, speaking of a “lost future” of decades filled with “love, family, joy and laughter.” He said Justine was his soul mate with “a Muppetlike way of being in the world.”
Noor sat quietly at the defence table with hands clasped, eyes usually closed and showing no emotion as victim impact statements were read.
Noor was returned after his sentencing to the state’s maximum security prison in Oak Park Heights, where he has been held since his conviction in a secure unit for his safety. Under Minnesota law, he would serve two-thirds of his sentence in prison, assuming good behaviour, and the remaining third on supervised release.
His lawyers said they were disappointed in the sentence and hinted that they plan to appeal, which they have 90 days to do.