Police officer charged with murder in killing of Australian woman in Minnesota

PHOTO: Johanna Morrow plays the didgeridoo during a memorial service for Justine Ruszczyk Damond at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.PlayAaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via AP, File
WATCH Police officer charged with murder in killing of Australian woman in Minnesota

A Minnesota police officer was indicted today on murder charges stemming from the fatal shooting last July of a 40-year-old Australian woman in Minnesota, according to prosecutors.

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Officer Mohamed Noor, of the Minneapolis Police Department, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in connection with the death of life coach Justine Ruszczyk Damond, according to Hennepin County Jail records.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon that Noor "abused his authority to use deadly force" when he shot Damond, who was weeks from getting married.

PHOTO: Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor turned himself into authorities Tuesday on charges related to the shooting death of Australian woman Justine Damond in July 2017.Hennepin County Sheriffs Office via AP
Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor turned himself into authorities Tuesday on charges related to the shooting death of Australian woman Justine Damond in July 2017.

On the night of July 15, Damond had called 911 to report what she feared was a woman being sexually assaulted behind her home, according to the criminal complaint, filed Tuesday in Hennepin County.

Noor and his partner, Minneapolis police Officer Matthew Harrity, responded to the call but did not encounter anyone while driving through the alley, the complaint states. Noor then entered "Code 4" into the computer in the squad car, which communicates to emergency dispatch "that the officers were safe and needed no assistance."

Less than a minute later, Harrity was reporting "shots fired, one down" on his radio, according to the complaint.

PHOTO: Justine Damond, also known as Justine Ruszczyk, from Sydney, is seen in this 2015 photo released.Stephen Govel Photography/Reuters
Justine Damond, also known as Justine Ruszczyk, from Sydney, is seen in this 2015 photo released.

Harrity told investigators that "five to 10 seconds" after Noor entered the Code 4 into the computer, he heard a voice or thump from somewhere behind him on the squad car and caught a glimpse of a person's head and shoulders outside his window, the document states.

Although Harrity was not "able to articulate" what the noise was or what the person's voice sounded, the noise "spooked" both him and Noor, enough for Harrity to take his gun out of the holster and point it downward, Freeman said.

Harrity said he saw no weapons and that he had a better vantage point to determine the threat in the driver's seat than Noor would have had in the passenger seat, Freeman said.

He then heard a noise that sounded like a "lightbulb dropping on the floor," Freeman said. After checking "to make sure he was not shot," he saw Noor's hand stretched across him, toward the open window on the driver's side, Freeman said.

Harrity looked out of his window to see a woman who had her hands on a gunshot wound, saying "I'm dying" or "I'm dead," according to the complaint.

Efforts to resuscitate Damond were unsuccessful, and she died at the scene from a single gunshot wound to her abdomen, according to the complaint.

PHOTO: Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced the charges against Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor in the shooting death of Australian woman Justine Damond in July 2017. KTSP
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced the charges against Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor in the shooting death of Australian woman Justine Damond in July 2017.

Both Noor and Harrity were wearing body cameras, but they did not activate until after the shooting, the complaint states. Footage from when the cameras did turn on begins with the officers standing over Damond's body.

Noor was hired by the department on March 23, 2015, and had no prior law enforcement experience, according to the complaint. Prior to his hiring, he completed training at the Minneapolis Police Department Academy, which includes training in "numerous scenarios intended to teach them to identify a target and its threat."

Freeman said there was "no evidence of a threat" in the "short time between when [Damond] approached the car and the time he fired the final shot."

Noor turned himself into authorities earlier today, Freeman said. Noor's attorney, Tom Plunkett, said that Freeman has "contemplated these charges long before the grand jury investigation he directed was even commenced," based on "public comments" he made "at a happy hour where he thought he was off the record" six months ago.

"The facts will show that Officer Noor acted as he has been trained and consistent with established departmental policy," Plunkett said in a statement. "Officer Noor should not have been charged with any crime."

Several police officers who responded to the scene after Damond was shot were interviewed as part of the investigation into her death, Freeman said.

Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, said the union "takes great exception" to Freeman’s statement that members did not cooperate in the investigation into Damond’s death.

"Early on, the federation sought legal advice and briefed all board members on what our legal obligation was in offering advice to our officers that were requested to provide voluntary interviews with county attorneys."

The federation said that many of its members under subpoena for grand jury "had no involvement whatsoever” with the incident and that “they were confused on why the county attorney’s office would want to speak with them."

"The federation’s duty is to protect the rights of its members and fully advise them of what their rights are,” the statement read. “No opinions were offered on what action to take with any of our members."

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who was acting chief at the time of the shooting, said in a press conference Tuesday that members of the police department are expected to "cooperate with an investigation."

"That is the expectation," he said. "That will continue to be the expectation."

Noor's employment with the police department ended on March 18, Arradondo said. The police chief would not comment on whether Noor resigned or was fired, only saying, "As chief, I ultimately have the make decisions as to one's employment."

"I wanted to make sure that the criminal process played its course before making any sort of employment decision, which could have impacted" the criminal process, he said.

PHOTO: Johanna Morrow plays the didgeridoo during a memorial service for Justine Ruszczyk Damond at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via AP, File
Johanna Morrow plays the didgeridoo during a memorial service for Justine Ruszczyk Damond at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said that the city and its police department "will continue advancing a concerted direct effort to reinforce" police training in de-escalation, crisis intervention, wellness and making sure body cameras are turned on when they're supposed to be. He also said that the police department will "hold our officers accountable for their actions."

"It's important to remember the trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve ... was fractured long before" Damond's death, Frey said.

Frey added, "Together, we must chart a path forward to prevent these tragedies from happening again."

PHOTO: Police Officer Mohamed Noor poses for a photo at a community event welcoming him to the Minneapolis police force in a May 2016 handout image.City of Minneapolis via AP
Police Officer Mohamed Noor poses for a photo at a community event welcoming him to the Minneapolis police force in a May 2016 handout image.

Freeman extended his "deepest sympathy" to Damond's family, saying it is "inexplicable" that she died "as a concerned and caring citizen at the hands of a person she called for help."

"Justine’s family in Australia and the U.S. applaud today's decision to criminally charge Officer Noor with Justine's murder as one step toward justice for this iniquitous act," Damond's family said in a statement Tuesday by their attorney. "While we waited over eight months to come to this point, we are pleased with the way a grand jury and County Attorney Mike Freeman appear to have been diligent and thorough in investigating and ultimately determining that these charges are justified."

The family said it is hopeful that Noor will be convicted.

"No charges can bring our Justine back," the family's statement reads. "However, justice demands accountability for those responsible for recklessly killing the fellow citizens they are sworn to protect, and today’s actions reflect that."

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