MINNEAPOLIS – A prosecutor urged the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday to uphold the third-degree murder conviction of a former Minneapolis police officer who fatally shot an Australian woman who had called 911 in 2017, saying a reversal would make it impossible to prosecute other officers on the same charge.
But defense attorney Caitlinrose Fisher argued that the Minnesota Court of Appeals erred in February when it affirmed Mohamed Noor's conviction. She argued that the language of Minnesota's third-degree murder statute, backed by case law, requires that a defendant's actions be directed at more than one person, and that the law is meant for cases such as indiscriminate killings.
The state law defines third-degree murder as “an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.” A central dispute is whether “dangerous to others” must be read as plural, or if the fatal act can be directed at a single, specific person. The high court’s ultimate decision has repercussions for four other ex-officers charged in the death of George Floyd, another high-profile police killing.
Hennepin County prosecutor Jean Burdorf told the justices that nearly all killings by officers are directed at a specific person. Noor testified in his 2019 trial that a loud bang on the squad car made him fear for his and his partner's life, so he reached across his partner from the passenger seat and fired through the driver’s window, believing it was necessary to protect his partner’s life. His shot killed Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a dual U.S.-Australian citizen engaged to a Minneapolis man, who had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault behind her home.
“If you maintain that a person can not be convicted of third-degree murder ... if their actions are directed at a particular person, there is not going to be an officer-involved shooting that can be prosecuted under Minnesota's depraved-mind murder statute,” Burdorf said.
It was associate Justice Anne McKeig who raised the question of whether police officers could ever be convicted of third-degree murder if the high court agrees with Noor's interpretation of the statute. Fisher replied that “it would be very hard to imagine” that an officer's “split-second reaction to a perceived threat” would count as a “depraved-mind murder” but that other charges could be justified instead, such as manslaughter.
Fisher pointed out that Noor isn't contesting his conviction on a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter. She urged the justices to send the case back to the trial court for resentencing on that count. While Noor was sentenced to 12 1/2 years on the murder count, which matched the prison term recommended by the state's sentencing guidelines, those guidelines recommend just four years for the manslaughter count.
“Mohamed Noor did not act with a depraved mind. Mohamed Noor was not indifferent to human life," Fisher said. "With the benefit of hindsight 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 for third-degree murder.”
Burdorf asked the justices to make the law clear because the proper interpretation of the statute has become unclear amid conflicting rulings over the years.
“We have this confusion. I think it exists and we have to acknowledge it." Burdorf said. "The solution, I think, is to go back to the fundamentals.”
The decision in Noor's appeal is expected to affect the cases of the four ex-officers charged in Floyd's death.
Former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in April of second- and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter, and is appealing. Prosecutors are seeking 30 years in prison for Chauvin, who will be sentenced June 25. The sentence wouldn't change even if the Supreme Court rules in Noor's favor, but that decision could become significant if Chauvin's second-degree murder conviction were overturned on appeal. Prosecutors are seeking to add charges of aiding and abetting third-degree murder to the existing counts against three other ex-officers, who are due to go on trial in March.
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 affirmed Noor's conviction. All four former officers also face federal civil rights charges.
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.