Former Minneapolis Police Officer Mohammed Noor’s depraved-mind murder conviction has been overturned, but a manslaughter charge still stands. (DOC photos)
Court: Noor directed gunfire at lone victim, but law requires ‘generalized indifference’
Minnesota’s first police-shooting murder conviction went away on Wednesday when the Supreme Court reversed it.
Former Minneapolis Police Officer Mohammed Noor was convicted of the depraved-mind murder of Justine Ruszczyk Damond. In June 2019, he was sentenced to 12½ years in prison.
He and police officer Matthew Harrity responded to Damond’s home on July 15, 2017, after she called police because she heard a woman screaming in her alley. When Damond approached the squad car, Noor shot her from the passenger seat and she died at the scene.
The court said that the third-degree murder statute involved requires a generalized indifference to human life, which cannot exist when the defendant’s conduct is directed with particularity at a single person who was killed.
In other words, the court reverted to the law’s traditional operation, which required more than one person to be placed at risk by another person’s depraved actions.
The unanimous opinion in State v. Noor was written by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea.
Noor’s conviction for second-degree manslaughter stands. He will be sentenced for that on remand. He is incarcerated for the third-degree charge, but Department of Corrections records do not disclose the location. He was acquitted of second-degree intentional murder at trial.
There is a substantial difference in the maximum sentences for the crimes. The statutory maximum for second-degree manslaughter is 10 years. For third-degree murder, it is 25 years.
Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman issued the following statement a few hours after the opinion was released:
“We are disappointed that the Minnesota Supreme Court chose to reverse the third-degree murder conviction of Mohamed Noor. The court overruled prior case law supporting the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office charging decision and we disagree with their analysis of the law. However, we respect and acknowledge that the Minnesota Supreme Court is the final arbiter in this matter. Accordingly, we must and do accept this result.
“The court’s decision leaves intact the Manslaughter II guilty verdict by the jury against Mohamed Noor. Further, the Supreme Court notes in its opinion that Mohammed Noor has conceded that the evidence at trial was sufficient to support his conviction of second-degree manslaughter. His conviction was just. The case has been remanded to the trial court for sentencing and we will seek the maximum sentence possible.”
As the court made clear Wednesday, the issue is not whether Noor is criminally responsible for Ruszczyk’s death. He is and his manslaughter conviction stands, the court said.
The issue arises from the language of Minn. Stat. § 609.195 (a), which defines third-degree murder as “perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.”
Since 1858, caselaw has developed to exclude from the statute crimes that are directed with particularly at the victim, which the court called the “particular-person exclusion.” In roughly 20 cases since then, Gildea wrote, “we have repeatedly reaffirmed that depraved-mind murder is a general malice crime and is therefore distinct from the particular malice crime of intentional murder.”
The court turned back the state’s argument that other caselaw applied, referring to it as “attempts to manufacture a split in our precedent.” After distinguishing six cases put forth by the state, it addressed its 1972 opinion State v. Mytych, which it said made the same argument as Noor did. But the court overruled Mytych, because it was “clearly and manifestly wrong when decided, and it remains clearly wrong today.”
In Mytych, defendant Eleanor Theresa Mytych flew hundreds of miles under an assumed name in 1968 to kill the victim, her ex-fiancé. The District Court acquitted her of first-degree murder and convicted her of depraved-mind murder.
The analysis in Mytych is poorly reasoned and relies on a medical expert’s opinion of the legal meaning of depraved mind, Gildea wrote. It also was a complete departure from precedent and possibly resulted from a District Court’s “desire to avoid an overly harsh result for a sympathetic defendant,” the court said.
The chief justice also noted that within a year after Mytych was decided, the court had started to walk away from it.
“Given our dearth of reliance of Mytych, its unexplained departure from [precedent], and the confusion it has caused, we conclude that Mytych must be, and therefore is, overruled to the extent that it is consistent with this opinion,” the court concluded.
The court also disagreed with the state’s attempt to distinguish what the court called “jury-instruction cases” that “purportedly refute[d] the existence of the particular-person exclusion,” or that conflict “with the line of cases cited by Noor.” Those cases were indistinguishable because they analyzed whether the depraved-mind jury instruction was appropriate under their facts, the court said.
It also declined the state’s request that the court “abandon our precedent and reinterpret the depraved-mind murder statute from a clean slate.”
Although the state argued that the particular-person statute creates a “significant hole” in the statutory homicide scheme, there is no hole, Gildea wrote. If there were, she added, it would be the Legislature’s job to fill it.
In a footnote, the court said that a fatal police shooting could result in charges of first-degree premeditated murder, second-degree intentional murder (rejected by the Noor jury) or second-degree felony murder.
Directed with particularity
The court went on to say that the evidence did not support the depraved-mind conviction, based on the circumstances proved and the reasonableness of all inferences that could be drawn.
The circumstances established that the police drove to the alley and spent less than two minutes before alerting dispatch that the scene was clear. They waited for a bicyclist to pass and then saw a “silhouette” outside their squad car. Noor then fired across Harrity’s body and struck Damond.
The court rejected the state’s argument that Noor acted with depraved mind because he also endangered Harrity and the bicyclist. “[T]he mere proximity of others does not establish indifference to human life in general,” Gildea wrote. She adds:
“We may very well agree that Noor’s decision to shoot a deadly weapon simply because he was startled was disproportionate and unreasonable. Noor’s conduct is especially troubling given the trust that citizens should be able to place in our peace officers. But the tragic circumstances of this case do not change the fact that Noor’s conduct was directed with particularity toward [Damond].”
Noor’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, could not be reached for comment.