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Updated Thursday, October 21, 3:00 p.m.
On Thursday, Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance resentenced former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor to 57 months in prison for the 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk.
A jury originally found Mohamed guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, and Quaintance sentenced him in June 2019 to 12 1/2 years in prison. Mohamed became the first police officer in Minnesota, and one of the only cops in the country, ever to be sentenced for killing a civilian. Mohamed quickly appealed the conviction for third-degree murder, a charge that prosecutors rarely pursue in court.
The state Court of Appeals upheld the conviction earlier this year. But last month, the state Supreme Court threw out Mohamed’s third-degree murder charge, ruling that his shooting and killing of Ruszczyk did not meet the “depraved mind” standards for that charge.
For people in the courtroom who heard Mohamed’s painful testimony, that outcome may feel less like a surprise. But more on that in a moment.
Mohamed still faces the second-degree manslaughter charge, a crime that typically results in approximately four years of prison time. He has already served close to 29 months behind bars. With his new reduced sentence, he could receive supervised release by next summer.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman sought the maximum penalty, which Quaintance ultimately delivered. Don Damond, the fiance of Ruszczyk, addressed Mohamed directly during Thursday’s resentencing hearing, saying he was “deeply guided” by Ruszczyk.
“She taught that all people deserve mercy and all people can transform, and I have no doubt that she would have forgiven you, Mohamed, for your inability to manage your emotions that night,” Damond said. “Given her example, I want you to know that I forgive you, Mohamed. All I ask is that you use this experience to do good for other people. Be the example of how to transform beyond adversity. Be an example of honesty and contrition. This is what Justine would want.”
Originally from Australia, Ruszczyk moved to Minneapolis in 2014, after meeting Damond. The couple had planned to marry that August. Ruszczyk, 40, was trained as a veterinary surgeon and spent her time in Minneapolis teaching meditation courses at Lake Harriet Spiritual Center.
The killing took place July 15, 2017, when Mohamed and his partner, Officer Matthew Harrity, responded to a report of a possible sexual assault in the alley near the intersection of W. 51st Street and Washburn Avenue in Minneapolis. The night would end in tragedy when Mohamed shot and killed the woman who made the 911 phone call, Ruszczyk, as she approached their squad car in the alley.
Just before Quantaince gave the new sentence, Mohamed told the judge that he was “deeply grateful for Mr. Damond’s forgiveness.”
“I’m deeply sorry for the pain that I’ve caused that family, and I will take his advice and be a unifier,” he said.
I covered Mohamed’s criminal trial as a stringer for the news service Reuters. The trial’s most notable development came when Mohamed unexpectedly took the stand to give his version of events that catastrophic night. Up to that point, the public hadn’t heard from Mohamed in his own words. Some media reports had crafted a picture of an unhinged cop who couldn’t handle the weight of his job.
During two days of testimony, Mohamed came off as soft-spoken. He sometimes wept when he recounted the night. But he tried to walk a tight line by simultaneously justifying his actions (he maintained that he’d followed his training) and expressing remorse for killing Ruszczyk.
Trying to account for the short moment when Ruszczyk approached the car, Mohamed returned, again and again, to the same story: She’d presented a threat to their lives. Mohamed said he’d heard a loud noise; Harrity turned to him “with fear in his eyes” and struggled to unholster his gun. Mohamed maintained he had no other choice but to “make a split-second decision” and shoot Ruszczyk.
But when he realized Ruszczyk was unarmed, Mohamed said, he “felt my whole world come crashing down.”
Prosecutors cast doubt on much of Mohamed’s version of the events, including that Ruszczyk banged the top of the squad car with her hand and caused a loud noise that provoked the officers. They cited how Harrity, in his own testimony, never mentioned having experienced any trouble unholstering his gun.
Four days later, after an 11-hour period of deliberation, the racially mixed jury found Mohamed guilty on the two charges, and not guilty on the stronger charge of second-degree murder.
Six weeks later, Mohamed spoke to the court again. The occasion this time: his sentencing hearing. Here, he apologized to the court and Ruszczyk’s family for “taking the life of such a perfect person.”
Mohamed said that the moment he saw Ruszczyk dying, “I knew in an instant that I was wrong.”
“The depth of my error has only increased from that moment on,” he stated.
When Mohamed recently reappeared in the news, I remembered how hearing his words had brought new depth to the widely publicized and complicated case. For the first time, we learned about how Mohamed and his family immigrated to the U.S. as refugees from Somalia. And we heard Mohamed describe how his upbringing–which included a dual college degree and a management job at a hotel–led him to seek a career as a police officer.
This context disappeared from the public narrative once the trial ended. The judge, Kathryn Quaintance, prevented reporters from using laptops or cell phones to take notes on the testimony. Unable to record the proceedings, I scratched handwritten notes on a legal pad.
Further, the state’s court system makes it absurdly difficult–or incredibly expensive–to access public trial transcripts. The Hennepin County Court reporter asked for $1,500 to provide Sahan Journal with a PDF transcript of the original trial. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office declined to release a copy.
Ultimately, we found the transcript of Mohamed’s testimony buried deep in the recesses of the Minnesota Judicial Branch website–a spot mostly obscured from reporters, the public, and even some lawyers.
Once I hunted down and re-read the transcript, I found Mohamed’s statements deserved another look—especially given Mohamed’s successful appeal, and this week’s resentencing. Regardless of where one stands on Mohamed’s pending release from prison, his perspective adds an essential part to understanding his criminal conviction.
Below, Sahan Journal is publishing excerpts of what Mohamed said back in 2019, during those days on the stand. The testimony has been edited for length and clarity.
Coming to America
Mohamed Noor was born in 1985 in the small town of Qoryoley, Somalia.
I was born in a small town, roughly 75 miles from the capital of Somalia, Mogadishu. I recall how we lived on a small corn farm. At the time, my father was working for a British nongovernmental organization called Action Aid, along with being a farmer. We were middle class.
I remember very little about Somalia. I recall going to school, but not that much. I was only five years old when we fled. Somalia was facing some turbulent times. It hadn’t fully broken out into a civil war yet, but the government was seeing some kind of turbulency. So, my father took the initiative to be proactive and to get his small family to a safe location.
We fled to neighboring Kenya. At the time we were four children. I’m the oldest. Because of safety and circumstance, we couldn’t leave Somalia during the day, so we took a bus ride during the evening. We settled in a small camp. We lived in Kenya for about a year and a half to two years. At the time, my father was helping the U.N. From there we obtained a visa to emigrate to the United States.
When I came to the U.S., I was seven. We first settled in Chicago. My mother joined us later; she was pregnant and she wasn’t allowed to fly.
We ended up getting an apartment in Uptown Chicago. Settling in Chicago was a culture shock for me and my siblings and my parents.
My father had a college degree from back home, an agricultural science degree. When he attempted to get employment with that degree, he was told that it was basically useless, and that it wasn’t accredited. He enrolled in a local community college, Truman College, and he obtained his GED and started taking college courses.
The only job that was available to him was to be a cab driver. He obtained his cab license and started being a cab driver.
I enrolled in the local elementary school, Stewart Academy, in Uptown Chicago. My peers were years ahead of me. I didn’t speak the language and couldn’t write the language. I knew a little bit of math, but, of course, that’s universal.
I was fortunate for the teachers in first and second grade, especially Ms. Sarah, who took the time to help me catch up to my peers. I was caught up by the fourth grade.
We left Chicago in ‘98, after about five years. Chicago doesn’t have a large Somali community. At the time, I recall maybe three or four families. After doing research, my father found out that two cities in the United States had large Somali populations. One was San Jose, California. The other was Minneapolis, Minnesota.
We left during the wintertime. We first settled in south Minneapolis. I believe I was in seventh grade. I went to Sanford Middle School. South Minneapolis was much different than Chicago. In Chicago, I didn’t have Somali classmates, or many Native American classmates.
When I first came to Sanford, I was coming from urban Chicago schools which were predominantly African American. My peers there accepted me. When I moved here, no one liked Somalis. I picked that up right away. As soon as I told my peers, “Hey, I’m Somali,” they would say, “We don’t like Somalis here.”
I signed up for football. I made friends and it got better. We moved to New Hope. I graduated from Hosterman Middle School in New Hope. From there, I went to Cooper and Armstrong High School.
I became a U.S. citizen in 1999. I believe I was 14 at the time. My parents became citizens in 1999 and it automatically transferred to me and the siblings.
Right after eighth grade, I signed up to work for Tree Trust, a nonprofit organization that works with Hennepin County to help youth obtain work experience. I remember we installed a boardwalk in Rice Lake, in Golden Valley.
During high school, I was able to get a job at Target. It was near my house. I could walk there. I was a cashier part time. I also worked for Radio Shack and Office Depot.
I graduated high school in 2004. I started college immediately. I enrolled in North Hennepin Community College to obtain my generals: basic English, chemistry, biology, the general course work that you need as a foundation for your major. I also took an intro course in economics. I was fascinated by building models and using mathematical formulas to solve complex problems. From there, I enrolled in Augsburg College. I believe this was 2007.
I got married in 2008. My son was born in 2010. This was a prior relationship [Mohamed later divorced in 2017]. I was still in college. I graduated from Augsburg in April of 2011. I have a dual degree, meaning two four-year degrees. The first degree I obtained was economics combined with business administration, and my second degree was in management.
After college, I became assistant manager at a local hotel, Extended Stay America. I was assistant general manager there. I did the hiring, firing, revenue management, forecasting, training, housekeeping, front desk, night laundry, maintenance—responsible for the entire operation. I was there until 2013.
Then, I worked for Prime Therapeutics as an analyst. Prime Therapeutics is a subsidiary of Blue Cross Blue Shield, so we handled their pharmaceutical benefits. There, I decided that I wanted to become a police officer.
I always wanted to serve the city of Minneapolis and the diverse communities there. I grew up in south Minneapolis. The city resonated with me. I fell in love with the city and wanted to make a difference. I was fortunate enough to finish college in Minneapolis. I felt a need to serve and give back.
Minneapolis has a program called Minneapolis police cadet program. It’s a 29-week academy where you learn skills and theory to become a police officer. I believe I was accepted in January of 2015.
The night Mohamed killed Justine Ruszczyk
After completing the police academy, Mohamed became as a Minneapolis police officer on October 20, 2015. Less than two years later, Mohamed’s actions would end the life of Ruszczyk and upend countless lives, including his own. Mohamed recounted the tragic night on the witness stand.
We entered the alley. My partner turns off all the lights. That was expected, per our training. I reduced the light so the whole squad car was dark. It was a dark alley. My side [the passenger side] was fairly lit. I relied on the flood lights so I had some kind of ambience. I kept my gun holstered.
My partner, Officer Harrity, is paying attention to his side. I cracked my window. I believe his window was all the way down. He’s using his spotlight to light the area of his observation. I didn’t hear anything. Possibly a dog barking.
We stopped. We listened. We didn’t hear anything, and we slowly continued searching the alley. We slowly proceed down the alley. We come to a full stop on the mouth of the alley and 51st Street West.
I observed a cyclist, cycling from Xerxes, going eastbound on 51st. I was thinking about the cyclist because we were on a call. I recall thinking that it was unusual for a cyclist to be in the area at this time. The cyclist suddenly comes to a stop.
As soon as the cyclist comes to a stop, I heard a loud bang on the driver’s side. As soon as I hear that bang, someone appears on the driver’s side. My partner looks and screams, “Oh, Jesus.” My partner feared for his life. He turned to me with fear in his eyes.
He went for his gun. Unable to holster, his gun appeared caught. He looked towards me and his gun. I quickly rose from my seat, applied my left arm across my partner’s chest. At that time, I observed a female, wearing a pink shirt, blond hair, raise her right arm. She could have a weapon.
I fired one shot. The threat was gone. My partner was able to exit the squad and further assess the situation. I came around the squad. He assessed the situation, and he didn’t locate a weapon. He advised me to holster my weapon. I holstered.
At that point, she took a couple steps back and she was falling back. So we assisted her to the ground. I saw that she didn’t have anything in her hands at the time. I felt my whole world come crashing down. Great anguish. I couldn’t breathe. I had trouble breathing. Slight paralysis. I felt great pain in my chest.
We quickly started CPR. At that point, the goal was saving her life.
An ambulance arrived on the scene, and Mohamed witnessed Ruszczyk die.
As soon as the ambulance didn’t leave with her is when I realized. I felt great anguish. I was sad, traumatized. If I knew this would happen, I would never have become a cop.
Mohamed Noor apologizes at the hearing
On sentencing day, more than one month after Mohamed was found guilty, he expressed remorse to the court for killing Ruszczyk.
I’ve thought and prayed about this for the last two years, the time since I took the life of Justine Ruszcyk. I thought a lot about Ms. Ruszcyk before the trial and more so in the last month. I’ve also been thinking about all the other lives that have been changed and continue to be changed by this event. Neither of our families will ever be the same again.
I have wanted to sit with Mr. Damond [Justine’s fiance] and tell him about what happened and to extend my condolences to him for the last two years, as well as Mr. Ruszczyk’s other family. The process of the courts and the lawyers is so cruel in a way that it makes us behave towards each other. The system is dehumanizing. I wish I could have had contact with them sooner and in a different way.
I have owed Ms. Ruszcyk’s family an apology for a long time. I did write them a letter while in jail, and now I apologize in person for taking the life of such a perfect person, who was dear to them in so many ways.
I came to be a police officer as a calling to serve my community. I loved being a police officer in Minneapolis. It was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I took great pride in my uniform and the job and the mission of being a police officer. I worked to be good at my job and to bring people together. I tried every day to have compassion for people and their situation in life and hoped to make individual lives better. That was my hope before I joined and was my mission after I began working as a police officer.
Taking a life so tragically goes against all of that.
I have lived with this and I’ll continue to live with this. 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.
I will think about Ms. Ruszczyk and her family forever. 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.
The moment I pulled the trigger, I felt fear. When I walked around and saw Ms. Ruszczyk dying on the ground, I felt horror. Seeing her there, I knew in an instant that I was wrong. The depth of my error has only increased from that moment on.
It should matter that Ms. Ruszczyk was a fine person. Her fiance and her family are also such fine people, and I feel worse because of that. These are the people I work to serve, and I harmed them in the worst way possible. Again, I apologize.
The Qur’an explains that with hardship, if you’re steadfast and have patience, will come ease. I have to endure the punishment from the court and the punishment from within myself. I can’t apologize enough, and I will never be able to make up the loss that I caused to Ms. Ruszczyk’s family.