Tom West, West Words

Tom West

When I was somewhere around the age of 7 or 8, I was just learning that the world was more dangerous and insecure than the environment that my parents provided. One day, I asked my father a question with deeper implications than I realized: If I were murdered, would he kill the person who killed me?

He immediately answered, “No.”

I asked, “Why not?”

He replied, “Because nothing I could do would ever bring you back.”

Oh.

During April, Minnesota’s news was led by the murder trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor. On the night of July 15, 2017, Christine Ruszczyk Damond twice called police to report what sounded like a sexual assault occurring behind her south Minneapolis home.

Twenty minutes after the first call, a patrol car with its lights off — and Noor riding with fellow officer Matthew Harrity driving — cruised slowly down the alley behind Damond’s home. Noor had his gun out, but Harrity did not.

Suddenly, the officers heard a thump and then Damond appeared at the open driver’s side window. A split second later, Noor fired his gun across Harrity, hitting Damond and killing her. He couldn’t see her hands, but if he had, he would have seen only her cellphone. She was unarmed and wearing her pajamas.

Noor was subsequently charged with second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, On April 30, he was convicted of the last two charges. Sentencing is set for June 7.

This case held the state’s attention in part because of the strained relations between Twin Cities blacks and law enforcement. In, 2015, Jamar Clark was killed by a Minneapolis officer while resisting arrest. Authorities and eyewitnesses disputed whether he was handcuffed or not. In 2016, a St. Anthony police officer killed Philando Castile. Castile told the officer he was armed, and was repeatedly warned not to pull the weapon out before he was shot.

In the Damond shooting, however, no words were exchanged before the shot. I learned fourth hand — and I would caution readers to weigh that fact — that both Harrity and Noor were on edge, thinking they were about to be ambushed. They testified as much at trial.

I was not in the courtroom for the Noor trial. However, I did follow the news reports closely. I was surprised at the guilty verdict for third-degree murder, but not for second-degree manslaughter. Under Minnesota statutes, third-degree murder requires, among other facts, that the accused “causes the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind. …” A depraved person is one who the dictionary says is morally bad, corrupt or perverted.

Based on the news reports, the prosecution never proved that Noor possessed any of those qualities. A juror, interviewed afterward by a KARE-11 reporter, said that the jury did consider the “depraved” requirement, and thought Noor met the standard. I don’t see it. Noor should appeal that conviction.

Third-degree murder is usually reserved for such crimes as a drive-by shooting where an innocent bystander is killed or drug dealing in which the dealer sells a drug, resulting in the death of someone, although not necessarily the direct buyer. In fact, the third-degree murder statute has a separate paragraph directed precisely at drug dealers.

The racial dynamics of the Damond shooting reversed the narrative because unlike the Clark and Castile shootings, Damond was white and Noor is black. The race baiters, of which Minneapolis has more than a few, said that racism played a role in the Noor verdict. I disagree. Half of the jurors were people of color.

While we ask our police to go into extraordinarily dangerous situations and second-guessing their decisions afterward is easy, the second-degree manslaughter statute says that if a person “creates an unreasonable risk” that causes the death of another, then he/she is guilty. Noor shot before knowing if Damond was armed. Nobody, not even police, can kill another without knowing if they are in imminent danger.

With no criminal history, the difference for Noor between third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter under state sentencing guidelines is that the minimum sentence under the murder conviction is 128 months, while under the manslaughter conviction it is 41 months. He can expect to serve about two-thirds of that time in prison before being paroled.

Still, I see this entire incident as a tragedy all around. In one sense, we are all to blame for creating a society in which cops are sometimes ambushed and when their commands to suspects are too often ignored.

It was not always this way. Sixty years ago, respect for the law and law enforcement was more widespread than it is now. We’ve all become numb to the misbehavior that happens routinely today, and cops are being asked ever more frequently to make life-or-death decisions. Sometimes they get it wrong. They are human after all.

I don’t think we are any safer by putting Mohamed Noor behind bars, and, in fact, may become less so if law enforcement thereby becomes a less attractive career. I understand, however, that the law says he must be imprisoned. I respect that.

Regardless, nothing we do is going to bring Justine back.

Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at westwords.mcr@gmail.com.

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