On July 15, 2017, Justine Ruszczyk called 911 for what she thought was an assault on a woman in an alley right behind her home. Minutes later she was shot and killed by one of the responding Minneapolis police officers.
It was tragic. But incidents where officers take an innocent life happen too frequently in the country and the officers, who almost always get the benefit of the doubt, usually go unpunished.
Not this time. This time, prosecutors went after the cop, officer Mohamed Noor, on a murder charge. This time, the police union, so quick to go public defending officers, didn’t come out swinging for Noor. This time, a jury, which typically sides with police, chose to convict.
Why was this time different? It’s because the officer was a black immigrant and the victim was a white woman.
I love Minnesota and choose to live here, but it’s impossible not to conclude that race played a role in prosecuting and convicting Noor. Across Minnesota’s entire history, there had not been a single police officer convicted of killing someone in the line of duty until April 30.
Unlike past officers, Noor was abandoned in a sea of trouble.
The Minneapolis police union that quickly and loudly defended the white officer who shot and killed Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man, in 2015, stayed largely silent.
Even before all the facts were known, the city forced Noor out of the police department.
While concluding those officers were justified in using deadly force against Clark, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office pursued third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges against Noor.
A third-degree murder is reserved for defendants who commit “[. . .] a knowingly dangerous act with reckless and wanton unconcern and indifference as to whether anyone is harmed or not,” causing death “[. . .] by perpetuating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind.”
In other words, this is rarely used but for cases where someone recklessly fires or ploughs into a crowd of people or sells harmful substance with the knowledge that it will kill.
It was easy enough then for prosecutors activate and awaken implicit racial bias in the jury. The murder charge, with its “depraved mind” language, allowed the jury to see Noor as capable of brute-like behavior.
One prosecutor asked Noor on the stand: “What is threatening about blond hair and a pink T-shirt?” signaling that whiteness is associated with innocence.
Need proof the racial argument drove the conviction? One juror was reported to say that, it did not take long for them to first reach a unanimous verdict on the rare, third-degree charge.
The longest debated was on the second-degree manslaughter, which many agree would have been most appropriate, thus easy to prove. Additionally, yet another report indicated that the jury even believed Mohamed Noor’s partner, who is white, more than Mohamed in his testimony in defense of himself.
The judge who could have mitigated the miscarriage of justice by lifting the scale back to “fair,” with a sentence that could have fit his crime, did not. She sentenced him to the 12 ½ years in jail recommended by the county attorney’s office.
In the end, Ruszczyk and Noor both paid a terrible price. It cost her her life and cost him his freedom.