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Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor’s third-degree murder conviction was vacated by Minnesota’s Supreme Court this week.
Noor, who shot and killed Australian woman Justine Ruszczyk Damond in 2017 after she called 911, was sentenced to 12-and-a-half-years in prison, but the high court’s Wednesday ruling will likely shave eight years off his current prison sentence. Noor has now spent 28 months in prison following his 2019 conviction.
Wednesday’s ruling scrapped a decision by Minnesota’s Court of Appeals in February to uphold Noor’s conviction.
On July 15, 2017, Noor abruptly discharged his service weapon, killing Damond, 40, as she approached his squad car in an alley after reporting a possible sexual assault. He was later convicted of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Noor hasn’t been sentenced on the manslaughter charge and his case will now proceed back to the district court. According to the Associated Press, Noor could be eligible for supervised release in a matter of months if he receives only the mandatory four years on the manslaughter charge.
Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, indicated prosecutors will seek a 10-year-sentence, the maximum penalty, in Noor’s re-sentencing.
"We are disappointed," Freeman said in a statement. "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."
Don Damond, the fiancé of Justine Damond, called the ruling a “double blow against justice.”
“I have lived with the tragic loss of Justine and none of this can hurt my heart more than it has been, but now it truly feels like there has been no justice for Justine,” he said.
A court of appeals had upheld Noor’s conviction in February by a panel vote of 2-1. He had previously been convicted of third-degree murder as prosecutors had argued he’d acted with a “depraved mind” with a "generalized indifference to human life" by firing out the open window of his squad car at Damond.
The court ruled that third-degree murder isn’t applicable when a defendant’s actions target a single, specific individual. According to state laws, third-degree murder is defined "by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind."
"We may very well agree that Noor's decision to shoot a deadly weapon simply because he was startled was disproportionate and unreasonable," Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote, according to the Star Tribune. "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 Ruszczyk."
Noor was also charged with second-degree murder but was acquitted on that charge. He was the first former officer in Minnesota to ever be charged with killing while on duty.
Attorneys for Noor applauded the court’s decision this week.
“We’ve said from the beginning that this was a tragedy but it wasn’t a murder, and now the Supreme Court agrees and recognizes that,” said attorney Caitlinrose Fisher, the Guardian reported.
Fisher wasn't immediately available for comment on Thursday when contacted by Oxygen.com.
The court’s ruling didn’t surprise some legal experts who have been following Noor’s legal saga; they said it’s increasingly difficult to pin a third-degree murder charge on police officers.
"[Noor] was negligent, that's for sure, but I don't think he did it with a depraved mind, which is the key element of murder three," said Joseph Daly, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
Other experts said it was an unorthodox strategy for prosecutors to charge Noor with third-degree murder.
"For many years most people understood the statute to apply to conduct that was so reckless and not directed at any individual, so its use in a case like this was a bit out of the norm," Gaertner said. "The prosecution's choice to move forward on murder three was legitimate. There certainly was some room for argument. It's just that at the end of the day, the creativity of criminal prosecution is rarely rewarded by the appeals court."
The ruling could also have a ripple effect in terms of how the trial in George Floyd’s murder plays out for the Minnesota police officers involved in his May 2020 killing.
In April, jurors found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death. He was later sentenced to 22-and-a-half years behind bars.
"It's crystal clear now that Derek Chauvin cannot be [guilty] of murder three," Daly also said.
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