Noor prosecutors reflect on former Minneapolis police officer's murder trial

Despite an emotional, public apology Friday, Mohamed Noor has begun serving his 12.5 year prison sentence.

Noor’s murder conviction was a rarity in the U.S. where a police officer is charged, convicted and ultimately sentenced for murder stemming from an on-duty incident. Sunday, we heard for the very first time directly from the Hennepin County prosecution team that spent nearly two full years pursuing justice in the shooting death of Justine Rusczyzk Damond.

“There is no case that we could find where an unarmed 911 caller gets shot,” said Patrick Lofton, prosecutor.

"It was immensely challenging," added Amy Sweasy, with the prosecution team.

From the research to their presentation of a voluminous amount of video and physical evidence, and eventually their sometimes intense courtroom questioning of witnesses - including the defendant himself - prosecutors say they faced a daunting task in the prosecution of Mohamed Noor.

"You will not find in Minnesota reported case law another situation where a court has departed from sentencing guidelines in a murder case and given probation," Sweasy argued during sentencing.

It was a blueprint that produced a rare murder conviction of a police officer for an on-duty shooting. 

"The law is not whether the officer who is on trial felt fear. The law is whether a reasonable officer in the same position, using the phrase 'the totality of those circumstances,' would have acted the same way and used the force the defendant did in this case," Sweasy said.

"The defendant fired his gun over the body of his partner," Lofton told the court at sentencing. "He did that in a residential neighborhood. He did that without saying a word. He did that despite Ms. Rusczyzk not saying a word. He did that despite the fact that she had nothing in her hands but a cell phone."

On Friday, Judge Kathryn Quaintance sentenced Mohamed Noor to 12.5 years in prison, bringing some closure to a painful two-year legal odyssey.

"This case has inflicted damage so vast and so far flung on so many people," Sweasy said at sentencing. "From obviously, the Rusczyzk family, the Damond family, the defendant's family, I am sure that's the case. Those who wrote letters in support of him. To the police department, the community, and the city."

What led to the guilty verdict?

The attorneys believe the trial hinged on a trio of factors. One, the early testimony of veteran Minneapolis homicide detectives who told jurors that something at the scene in one of the city’s quietest and safest neighborhoods didn’t add up with an unarmed woman being shot to death in her pajamas.

"I think that cued them in where this was going," Lofton explained.

Two, the state’s pair of expert witnesses who articulated how and why Noor was unreasonable in his assessment of the threat he and his partner Matthew Harrity faced at the end of the alley.

"That was obviously a very important moment in the trial," said Sweasy.

And three, the credibility of Noor on the stand, telling a story Lofton and Sweasy insist did not add up and differed significantly from Harrity’s version of events.

“As far as what happened inside that car, we had the word of Officer Harrity, and Harrity said at trial he couldn’t see a person," Lofton explained. "Couldn’t make out a man, woman, or child. It was a silhouette at best."

And what if Mohamed Noor had come forward early on, before the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office convened a grand jury, and admitted he made a tragic miscalculation in fearing a potential ambush, would they have pursued murder charges?

"You’d certainly have a very different case then," Lofton told us. "I think, potentially, if that had happened, you would be more in the manslaughter realm than third-degree murder and second-degree murder. But it would be in the manslaughter realm."

The role of race in the prosecution of Noor

"And for anyone who believes race and class had no place in the outcome, I need only to point you to the words of Amy Sweasy, the prosecutor, when she said, ‘her whole blonde hair and pink T-shirt, that was a threat to you?’ Had it been my mother in that alley, Amy Sweasy would never have said, ‘her whole blackness and her hijab that was a threat to you?’" said Abass Noor, Mohamed’s brother.

In the hours immediately before and after sentencing, Noor’s family and supporters voiced their anger and frustration over what they claimed was a racist prosecution that turned the Somali-immigrant into a scapegoat for shoddy police training.

Sweasy and Lofton’s response: It's not true. They were adamant that, despite some community skepticism, if the facts of this case were a white officer, an unarmed, black 911 caller in a troubled Minneapolis neighborhood, the rigorous investigation, prosecution, and verdict would have been the same.

“Absolutely, in every way, shape, and form,” Sweasy said.

Change after Noor’s sentence

“The primary concern of jurors who heard the testimony when I spoke to them after the verdict was, will there be changes? Change is needed.” At sentencing, Judge Kathryn Quaintance described jurors who knew next to nothing about the July 2017 shooting of Justine Rusczyzk Damond at the start of the trial, recognizing a troubled and maybe even a broken system after their deliberations.

Prosecutors were optimistic something positive will eventually come out of the tragedy for a community that is just beginning to heal.

“So there are always opportunities to be and do better," said Sweasy. "And I think that’s one of the positive legacies that will come out of Justine’s death and one that is very important for her family... will there be change and we’re already starting to see that. So out of this horrible and immense tragedy, hopefully, if some good can come, change will be that thing."

Mohamed Noor's legal team tells FOX 9 they are disappointed in the 12-plus year prison sentence, have concerns with the process, and insist they are not done fighting for the former Minneapolis police officer. It's expected they will appeal Noor's conviction very soon.