Mohamed Noor walks into the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis Friday, March 1, 2019, for a pretrial hearing. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News file

Former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor was re-sentenced Thursday to 57 months in prison for shooting and killing 40-year-old Justine Ruszczyk in the summer of 2017. It was the maximum sentence allowed under Minnesota sentencing guidelines for second-degree manslaughter. 

“Mr. Noor, I’m not surprised that you have been a model prisoner,” Judge Kathryn Quaintance said shortly before announcing her decision. “However, I do not know of any authority that would make that grounds for a shorter sentence.”

Although the new sentence is considerably harsher than the one Mohamed’s attorneys were seeking, it still provides a drastically changed outlook for a man who until last month was facing the prospect of up to 10 more years in prison. Under early release guidelines, he could now be released any time between now and next summer. 

In the spring of 2019, a jury convicted Mohamed of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for killing Ruszczyk. Mohamed was sentenced to 12 ½ years in prison that June, and he has been incarcerated ever since. However, Mohamed appealed the third-degree murder charge—a rarely used statute that has led to few convictions in Minnesota. 

An appeals court originally upheld the conviction. But in September 2020 the Minnesota Supreme Court vacated Mohamed’s third-degree murder conviction —ruling that the murder charge could not apply to Mohamed because his conduct was directed at a specific person and was not indiscriminate. Mohamed did not appeal the second-degree manslaughter conviction.

Ruszczyk had moved from Australia to Minneapolis in 2014 and was engaged to be married. Late on the evening of July 25, 2017, she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault taking place in an alley behind her house in southwest Minneapolis. 

Mohamed and another police officer responded to the call, driving into the alley. When Ruszczyk approached their squad car, Mohamed, who was sitting in the car’s passenger seat, shot across his partner out the window and killed her.  

Second degree manslaughter can be punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but is typically punished by only four. The state’s sentencing guidelines recommend that for first-time criminal offenders like Mohamed, a second-degree manslaughter sentence be between 41 and 57 months. 

Mohamed’s attorney asked that he be sentenced to the minimum 41 months given the difficult conditions of his incarceration and his constructive post-conviction behavior. Given time already served, that sentence might have seen him leave prison on supervised release before the end of the year. 

The Hennepin County attorney, on the other hand, asked that Mohamed be sentenced to the full 57 months, noting that this sentencing could set a precedent for the future sentence of police officers convicted of second-degree manslaughter. 

“This case stands unique on its facts for that, and for that, the most serious sentence this court can impose is required,” Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy said. 

For Judge Quaintance, questions about the conduct of the Minneapolis Police Department were top of mind. Before announcing her sentencing decision, she referenced the police murder of George Floyd and the millions of dollars the city has paid victims of police misconduct. She noted that jurors two years ago were primarily concerned with a lack of accountability and cultural issues at the department. 

“Minneapolis residents await the promised transformation, and the questions of the jurors remain unanswered,” Judge Quaintance said. “What has changed? What will change so this doesn’t happen again?”

But for some, including the Minnesota-based Somali American Police Assocation, Mohamed’s overturned murder conviction represents a just course correction after the Somali immigrant became the first Minnesota police officer ever convicted and sentenced for killing a civilian two years ago. 

On his way out of the government center on Thursday morning, Mohamed’s father Mohamed Abass told assembled reporters that Quaintance is the “worst judge in Minnesota history” and said that the severity of the sentence was racially motivated. 

For others, though, the events of recent months have been newly painful. In a statement read to the court by prosecutors on Thursday morning, Ruszczyk’s parents said that they would be “outraged” if the judge handed Mohamed a relatively lenient sentence.

“Our sorrow is forever, our lives will always endure in emptiness and suffer the incomprehension of the loss of an innocent woman who we will never be able to hug again,” they said. 

In a statement, Freeman’s office said it was “pleased” with the new sentence. 

“Given the circumstances, we feel it is the most just resolution,” the statement said. “We hope the family and loved ones of Justine Ruszczyk are finally able to heal.” 

Mohamed apologizes again to Ruszczyk’s family

Mohamed issued a brief statement on Thursday morning, apologizing to Ruszczyk’s family and telling the court that he would be a “unifier” when released. Mohamed testified more fully over the course of two days at his trial and first sentencing. Then, he told the court the story of his family’s immigration to the United States from their home of Qoryoley, Somalia, and expressing anguish and remorse over Ruszczyk’s killing. 

Mohamed’s approach to his trial struck a notable contrast to the conduct of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who murdered George Floyd last year and did not testify during his spring trial.

Chauvin did make a brief statement at his sentencing hearing after being convicted, offering “condolences to the Floyd family.” But he said that he could not make a fuller statement because of “additional legal matters at hand.” Chauvin, currently serving a 22 ½-year sentence for second-degree murder, is appealing his conviction. 

“I will think about Ms. Ruszczyk and her family forever,” Mohamed said at his 2019 sentencing. “The only thing I can do is try to live my life in a good way going forward. Regardless of the sentence in this case, I owe that to Ms. Ruszczyk and to her family.”

Abe Asher is a journalist whose work covering protest, police, and politics has appeared in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @abe_asher.