Grand Jury Convened in Police Killing of Justine Damond

January 25, 2018 05:31 AM

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has convened a grand jury to compel testimony and gather evidence in the July 2017 officer involved shooting death of Justine Damond.

The incident happened in an alley behind the home she shared with her fiance, Don Damond, in South Minneapolis.

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Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 40-year-old life coach, was killed by Minneapolis Officer Mohamed Noor just minutes after she called police to report a possible sexual assault. 

RELATED: County Attorney: No Charging Decision, Damond Investigation Continues into 2018

The attorney for Matthew Harrity, Noor's partner on the night of the shooting, confirmed he was served a subpoena Wednesday.

Lt. Bob Kroll, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Federation, said nearly 40 subpoenas were issued. He said all of the officers in the union will cooperate. 

Notices advising some residents in Hennepin County of their grand jury service told them to set aside five days over two months in January and February. The panel would meet at the Hennepin County Government Center. All proceedings would take place behind closed doors. 

News of the subpoena came weeks after Freeman said more investigation was needed in the case, and after he was recorded telling activists that he didn't have enough evidence and investigators "haven't done their job."

In recent years, Freeman has said he would no longer use grand juries to decide whether officers would be charged in police shootings, saying he would make those decisions himself to provide more accountability and transparency.

In a statement Wednesday, Freeman's office said it can't comment on grand juries because they are secret, but that Freeman "will continue the office's two-year-old policy where he makes the decision on whether or not to bring charges in officer-involved shootings."

Grand juries can be a helpful tool in investigations, according to former federal prosecutor Steve Schleicher. He's in private practice now at Maslon LLP and not involved in this case.

"Grand juries can gather documents and things you wouldn't ordinarily be able to get and to speak to people who may be reluctant to speak with law enforcement," he said.

"You can't force someone to talk to police but you can compel them to appear under oath to testify before a grand jury."  

Schleicher went onto say if a witness lies during the grand jury proceedings, they could face a perjury charge.

Marsh Halberg, a criminal defense attorney not connected to the case, said it could give Freeman a strategic advantage by requiring witnesses to testify under oath and lock down witness testimony in advance of a possible trial.

Still, Halberg said it's unclear whether a grand jury can be used strictly for investigative purposes on the state level, and it's not something he has seen in his 40-year career.

Halberg said Freeman could be using the grand jury as "a tactical reason to get evidence from people who are maybe refusing to testify."

Robert Bennett, an attorney for the Damond family, said he and the family support Freeman's use of the grand jury and think it's the right thing to do. Bennett said it's disappointing that subpoenas were necessary to get witnesses, including police officers, to be truthful. 

RELATED: Freeman Apologizes For Criticizing BCA's Efforts in Damond Investigation

"This a very unique procedure to have to use, but we applaud it," Bennett said.

Noor's attorney, Thomas Plunkett, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon:

"Mr. Freeman has announced that he is convening a Grand Jury as part of the investigation into Officer Noor. While his public comments leave me unclear as to what he is doing, it would be unethical and potentially unlawful to comment publicly on this development. Worse - any public comment would jeopardize the fairness of an important judicial function.

"Officer Noor continues to personally acknowledge the grief of the Damond and Ruszczyk families for their tragic loss."

Noor has not spoken publicly about the case and has declined to speak with state investigators.

Harrity, Noor's partner, has told investigators he was startled by a loud noise right before Damond approached the driver's side window of their police SUV on July 15. Harrity, who was driving, said Noor then fired his weapon from the passenger seat, shooting Damond.
Damond, who was unarmed, died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen.

The officers didn't turn on their body cameras until after the shooting, and there was no squad camera video of the incident. The lack of video was widely criticized as the case gained international attention. The shooting also prompted questions about Noor's training and led to the ultimate firing of the city's police chief.

The grand jury process has been criticized for its secrecy and because it rarely results in charges against officers.

Freeman was the first to break precedent with the standard practice of having a grand jury decide charges in police shootings after the November 2015 death of Jamar Clark. Freeman noted at the time of Clark's death that grand juries had been used to consider police shootings in his county for more than 40 years and no officers had been indicted.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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Beth McDonough

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