“I knew in an instant that I was wrong.”
A former Minneapolis police officer who shot and killed a woman who had called 911 was sentenced to 12 ½ years in prison on Friday.
But just before the judge brushed off a defense request for leniency, Mohamed Noor, the convicted officer, apologized to her family.
It was a stiff sentence that’s received national attention after Noor, a Somali American, shot Justine Ruszcyk Damonda, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Australia, when she approached his police car in the alley behind her home in July 2017.
It became a fight over race in recent months.
Some people in Minneapolis’ large Somali community and the larger black community said the case was handled differently from police shootings across the country in which the victims were black and the officers were white.
They were also outraged that Noor’s conviction came after Jeronimo Yanez, a Latino officer, was cleared of manslaughter in the 2016 death of black motorist Philando Castile in a nearby suburb.
One such show of that anger was a sign carried by Ahmed Nur outside the courthouse that had the words “Black, Muslim, Immigrant and Guilty” with boxes checked next to each word.
He argued a white officer would not have been treated the same in Noor’s situation.
“There will be many cases after this where a white officer kills a black kid. It will happen,” Nur said. “Then what are you gonna do? Because now we set a precedent saying if you kill someone, you will be prosecuted. You will go to jail. Are you going to do the same things for those cops?”
Friday’s sentencing opened with emotional statements from Noor, Damond’s fiance and his son, and her family in Australia, who said they continue to struggle with the loss of a kind and generous person who had filled their lives with joy and laughter.
Damond, a 40-year-old life coach, was due to be married a month after her death.
Noor, spoke publicly about the shooting for the first time.
His voice breaking several times, he apologized repeatedly to Damond and her family for “taking the life of such a perfect person.”
“I have lived with this and I’ll continue to live with this,” Noor said. “I caused this tragedy and it is my burden. I wish though that I could relieve that burden others feel from the loss that I caused. I cannot, and that is a troubling reality for me.”
Noor testified he was horrified to see Damond’s body on the ground.
“The depth of my error has only increased from that moment on,” he said. “Working to save her life and watching her slip away is a feeling I can’t explain. I can say it leaves me sad, it leaves me numb, and a feeling of incredibly lonely. But none of that, none of those words, capture what it truly feels like.”
Noor’s attorneys pushed for a sentence as light as probation. That didn’t fly with Judge Kathryn Quaintance, who gave a term identical to state sentencing guidelines.
“The act may have been based on a miscalculation, but it was an intentional act,” Quaintance said. “Good people sometimes do bad things.”
Noor is the only Minnesota officer to be convicted in an on-duty shooting in years.
Tom Plunkett is Noor’s attorney. He described Noor’s desire to become a police officer in part to repay a debt he felt to the country that took him in long ago as a refugee, and asked for leniency.
“I have never stood up at sentencing with anyone my entire career that’s done more or worked harder to be a good person, to earn the gifts he’s been given,” Plunkett said. “That’s who Mohamed Noor is.”
But prosecutor Amy Sweasy fought back and demanded the recommended 12½ years, saying Damond had called 911 seeking help.
“And it was the defendant’s responsibility when he encountered her in that alley to investigate and appreciate and discern that before he pulled the trigger,” she said. “That was his responsibility, and his failure to do that is what resulted in the criminal act.”
Justine’s father is John Ruszczyk. Reading a statement in court, he asked for the maximum sentence and called her killing “an obscene act by an agent of the state.”
Don Damond is Justine Damond’s fiancé. On Friday in court, he every time he sees the alley where she walked barefoot and in her pajamas toward the police car he relives the moment.
“In my mind I beg you to turn around,” he said, speaking of a “lost future” of decades filled with “love, family, joy and laughter.” He said Justine was his soul mate with “a Muppetlike way of being in the world.”
During the testimony, Noor sat quietly at the defense table with hands clasped and eyes usually closed.
A clip was recently released as part of a number of pieces of video and audio evidence prosecutors used.
In the moments after Mohamed Noor fatally shot her, another Minneapolis police officer addressed him as “kiddo” and warned against speaking to anyone about the bloody incident until absolutely necessary.
It was caught on body camera video from Officer Jesse Lopez, one of the first officers on the scene the night Justine Damond was gunned down outside her home in July 2017.
“You alright kiddo? You alright?” Lopez asks Noor, who appears to be sweating profusely. “Just keep to yourself, just keep your mouth shut until you have to say anything to anybody.”
Lawyer Bob Bennett negotiated a $20 million settlement for Damond’s family. He told local media outlets the footage played a “tremendous” role in making his case.
“The blue wall of silence is alive and well,” he said. “Who were they protecting and serving?”
Also released was audio of the woman’s terrified 911 calls, though transcripts have previously been released.
“Hi. I can hear someone out back and I, I’m not sure if she’s having sex or being raped,” she tells the operator. “And I think she just yelled out ‘help,’ but it’s difficult. The sound has been going on for a little while but I don’t think, I don’t think she’s enjoying it.”
Damond called police again just less than ten minutes later and was told officers were on the way there.
When they arrived, she tried to approach them and started Noor, who was sitting in the passenger seat in his cruiser. She was still in her pajamas when she was shot.
Body cam footage from Sergeant Shannon Barnette was also released. Barnette was the police incident commander the night of the shooting. In that footage, Noor’s partner, Matthew Harrity, can be seen recalling the how the shooting unfolded.
“Sarge, Sarge,” Harrity can be heard saying.
He then approaches Barnette.
“We had the call over here, someone was screaming in the back, we pulled up here, we were about ready to clear and go to another call she just came up out of nowhere on the side of the thing and we both got spooked. I had my gun out, I didn’t fire and then Noor pulled out and fired.”
There are five more body cam videos showing Damond gasping for breath while responders attempted to save her. They were not made public in the recent release.
After his sentencing, Noor was brought back to the state’s maximum security prison in Oak Park Heights. That’s where he has been held since his conviction in a secure unit for his safety.
Minnesota law says he will serve two-thirds of his sentence in prison, and assuming good behavior, the remaining third will be on supervised release.
His lawyers said they plan to appeal, which they have 90 days to do.