I attended the trial of Mohamed Noor yesterday. The parties made their opening statements and the prosecutors called their first witness — Don Damond, the fiancee of Justine Rusczyk (who called herself Damond in anticipation of her marriage to Don). Following up on my report from the lunch break in part 5 of this series, I want to note a few highlights and observations. For a coherent narrative account, plase see this MPR account by Jon Collins and Riham Feshir or this KARE 11 account by Lou Raguse or this Star Tribune account by Chao Xiong and Libor Jany. I also recommend the Twitter thread under Latest at #Noortrial.
This case is a nightmare wrapped inside a tragedy. It resonates with us because it stands at the intersection of the issues that roil us. The Minneapolis kakistocracy visible under the surface of the case represents the wave of the future. This is a decidedly Minneapolis jury that will decide the case.
Notes on opening statement: Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Patrick Lofton:
• Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Patrick Lofton gave the opening statement for the prosecution. His account of the events leading to Justine’s shooting by Noor disputed that Justine “thumped” the officers’ squad car in the alley behind her house. He characterized the “thump” essentially as an invention of the investigation itself. Even if Justine “thumped” the squad car, however, did that create a reasonable fear of death or bodily harm on the part of the officers?
• Noor’s partner, Matthew Harrity, was driving the squad car. He will be a crucial witness at trial. According to Lofton, he saw “a silhouette” to his left. He couldn’t tell what it was. He then heard “a pop” and saw a woman in her pajamas with hands cradling her abdomen. It turned out to be Justine. Harrity turned on his bodycam and tried to help Justine. Her last words were, “I’m dying.”
• Minneapolis police sergeant Jan Barnette turned up and took charge of the scene. Burnette asked Harrity what happened. “She came up out of nowhere,” Harrity said. “Noor pulled his gun out and fired.”
• Per protocol after a shooting, Noor sat in another squad car that arrived at the scene. The officer in that squad car turned off his bodycam to speak to Noor. He turned it back on after their conversation. Noor can be been on bodycam video showing the officer how he fired at Justine. It took them all a while to deduce that the woman lying dead in the alley was the woman who had called 911.
• The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension took over the investigation and searched the Damonds’ house. We have long known this. I have yet to understand it. Lofton disparaged the BCA’s initial handling of the investigation, though he credited the agency with getting its act together. He emphasized that it is an investigative agency; it does not determine the proper use of force.
• The prosecutors have retained two experts with long service in police leadership to testify on the issue of reasonable use of force. They will testify that the shooting was unreasonable. The prosecutors have incurred an expense of $47,000 for the experts (I assume that is $47,000 so far).
Notes on opening statement: Defense counsel Peter Wold:
• Wold played up Noor’s journey from Somalia to Minnesota. He portrayed it as a great success story. Despite the defense talk of “implicit bias” during voir dire, the defense advertises and emphasizes Noor’s Somali background.
• Noor has been “heartbroken” for Justine since he realized she wasn’t the threat he thought she was. Much of the opening statement implied to me that Noor would be testifying in his own defense, though it is clear that Harrity is the crucial witness to Noor (I’m sure the prosecutors will call him and the defense will cross-examine him).
• Noor had a background in hotel management before applying to join the Minneapolis police force.
• Noor’s training at the Minneapolis police academy included “ambush training.”
• Noor’s defense rests on the proposition that he and his partner thought they were in an imminent ambush in the alley. The lovely lady in the alley who was barefoot in her pajamas clutching her cell phone was perceived as a deadly threat.
• Wold’s opening statement drew several objections as it crossed the line to argument (rather than summary of evidence). All were sustained. The last time around the judge admonished him in front of the jury to stick to the evidence.
• A few “split seconds” are what the case is all about. Just before Noor shot Justine, Harrity exclaimed “Oh, Jesus!” and fumbled for his gun. Harrity appeared in terror. Noor had his weapon drawn and shot the silhouette to protect his partner and himself. This was “a perfect storm with tragic consequences.” It represented “a classic ambush scenario.” That is what crossed Harrity’s mind.
• What happened was “in no way a crime.”
Notes on testimony of Don Damond:
• Don Damond was the first witness called by the prosecution. He was in Las Vegas on business for the weekend when Justine was killed. His testimony was the most emotional I can recall ever seeing in court
• Don was a riveting witness with no credibility issue. He fell in love with Justine at first sight at a conference they both attended. Justine lived in Sydney and Don in Minneapolis. They communicated at long distance over the next eight months. Don told Justine how he felt about her in December 2012. He didn’t hear from her over the next 14 months.
• When Justine came around on the romance, she laid down three conditions. Don had to move to Sydney, they had to be married, and they had to have a child. Don already had an adult son (Zach) who lived with him in Minneapolis, but Don was on board with Justine’s conditions. They were engaged to be married in August 2017, the month following Justine’s killing.
• Zach had a hard time with his father’s plan to move to Sydney. After Justine met Zach, she felt compassion for his difficulties with his father’s plans. She moved to Minneapolis to live with Don.
• Justine was a veterinarian who had moved on to personal healing and spiritual growth. Listening to Don talk about her, I wished she were around for me to sign up for one of the classes she taught in Minneapolis.
• Don held it together until the end of direct examination. He broke down as he recalled the events of the evening of July 15, 2017 and the early morning of the following day. He recalled each of the phone calls he and Justine exchanged that evening and read the follow-up text messages as well.
• Don urged Justine to call the police. When she told him the police had arrived on the scene, he was confident all would be well.
• In his cross-examination Peter Wold asked about the physical training that Don and Justine had undertaken before their marriage. Justine worked out four or five times a week. She was in top physical shape. One component of her exercise involved kickbox training. Don stated that this was an exercise regimen, not martial arts training. I thought this line of questions reeked of desperation.