The Associated Press
Updated: June 09, 2021 07:04 PM
Created: June 08, 2021 10:58 PM
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 an Australian woman who had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault behind her home.
Noor's attorneys argue that a divided Minnesota Court of Appeals failed to follow legal precedents defining third-degree murder when it affirmed Noor's conviction. The high court's decision has repercussions for another high-profile police killing case, the death of George Floyd. Besides second-degree murder, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was also convicted in April of third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter.
University of St. Thomas law professor and former federal prosecutor Mark Osler said this ruling could go beyond Noor and Chauvin and have implications for how deaths at the hands of law enforcement are prosecuted in the future.
Minnesota Supreme Court justices did not issue a ruling immediately, but Osler said what they decide could affect "the ability of prosecutors to use third-degree murder in officer-involved shootings, and other officer-caused deaths, as we saw with Derek Chauvin, where there's a single target, of the eminently dangerous action by the officer, or by anybody else, of course."
The judge overseeing Chauvin's trial initially threw out the third-degree murder charge against Chauvin, but later reinstated the count after the Court of Appeals in February affirmed Noor's conviction for third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Chauvin faces sentencing June 25. Prosecutors are seeking to add charges of aiding and abetting third-degree murder to the existing counts against three order ex-officers facing trial in Floyd’s death. All four former officers also face federal civil rights charges.
Noor was convicted in 2019 of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison in the 2017 death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a dual U.S.-Australian citizen engaged to a Minneapolis man. Noor testified that a loud bang on the squad car startled him and his partner, and that he reached across his partner from the passenger seat and fired through the driver's window to protect his partner’s life. But prosecutors criticized Noor for shooting without seeing a weapon or even Damond’s hands when she approached the car.
A key issue is whether third-degree murder in Minnesota must involve actions that endangered multiple people, or if it's sufficient that only one person was put at risk. Both sides in their written briefs cited previous cases to back up their positions on how the statute should be interpreted.
The statute defines third-degree murder as “an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.” The high court is being asked to decide whether “dangerous to others” must be read as plural, or if the fatal act can be directed at a single, specific person.
Noor's attorney argued the language of the state's third-degree murder statutes mentions that a defendant's actions must have endangered more than one person because it includes the word "others," but an assistant Hennepin County attorney disputed that argument.
"The textual argument you heard council make was essentially, the word 'others' means that it has to be indiscriminate," Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Jean Burdorf said. "That argument was addressed and rejected in this court's decision in low."
Prosecutors wrote in their brief that over 40 states have some form of “depraved mind” or “depraved indifference” homicide statute, but “only a handful" require a defendant to endanger more than one person for prosecutors to get a conviction.
"Most states say you can be guilty of an offense third-degree murder if your act was dangerous to just one person," said Rachel Moran, a University of St. Thomas law professor. "There's some divide — and there's even divide in Minnesota — among the courts on the question. This is a big question for the supreme court to decide"
Defense attorneys wrote in their brief that the “particular-person exclusion" that they say was eliminated by the Court of Appeals serves an important public policy function because it helps draw a distinction between the varying degrees of murder and other forms of homicide charges, such as manslaughter, which carry different penalties.
"We now know that Mr. Noor made a tragic split-second mistake, but if there is to be any meaningful difference between murder and manslaughter, that mistake is not sufficient to sustain Mr. Noor's conviction," said Caitlinrose Fisher, Noor' attorney.
If the high court void's Noor's third-degree murder conviction, it could still affirm his conviction for second-degree manslaughter, but it carries a recommended sentence of just 4 years under the state's sentencing guidelines.
Supreme Court opinions generally take between three and five months, according to the court's website.
KSTP reporter Eric Chaloux contributed to this story.
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