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Minneapolis Officer Charged With Murder in Shooting of Australian Woman

Justine Ruszczyk Damond's death drew international attention, cost the police chief her job and forced major revisions to the department's policy on body cameras

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    Minneapolis Officer Charged With Murder in Shooting of Australian Woman
    Stephen Govel/www.stephengovel.com via AP
    This undated photo shows Justine Damond, of Sydney, Australia, who was fatally shot by police in Minneapolis on Saturday, July 15, 2017.

    A Minneapolis police officer who shot and killed an unarmed Australian woman in July minutes after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault behind her home was charged Tuesday with murder and manslaughter.

    Officer Mohamed Noor turned himself in Tuesday after a warrant was issued for his arrest. He shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 40-year-old life coach, on July 15 minutes after she called 911. Damond's death drew international attention, cost the police chief her job and forced major revisions to the department's policy on body cameras.

    Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman planned a Tuesday afternoon news conference to discuss the charges. The criminal complaint specified third-degree murder "for perpetrating an eminently dangerous act" and the manslaughter charge alleges Noor acted with "culpable negligence creating unreasonable risk."

    Conviction on the first charge carries a presumptive sentence of 12 ½ years; the second, four years. Bail was set at $500,000.

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    Noor has not spoken publicly about the case and declined to answer questions from investigators. His attorney, Thomas Plunkett, confirmed Noor turned himself in, but had no other immediate comment.

    Damond's father, John Ruszcyzk, and her fiance, Don Damond, issued a joint statement on behalf of both families, saying they applauded the decision to charge Noor "as one step toward justice for this iniquitous act."

    "No charges can bring our Justine back. However, justice demands accountability for those responsible for recklessly killing the fellow citizens they are sworn to protect, and today's actions reflect that," the statement said.

    Noor's partner the night of the shooting, Matthew Harrity, told investigators that he was startled by a loud noise right before Damond approached the driver's side window of their police SUV. Harrity, who was driving, said Noor then fired his weapon from the passenger seat. Damond died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen.

    The criminal complaint described Harrity hearing the noise and catching a glimpse of a person's head and shoulders outside his window. It said Harrity was startled, perceived his life was in danger, pulled his gun and held it to his ribcage pointing downward.

    It said Harrity then heard a sound like a lightbulb breaking, saw a flash and looked to his right to see Noor had fired his weapon.

    "There is no evidence that, in that short timeframe, Officer Noor encountered, appreciated, investigated, or confirmed a threat that justified the decision to use deadly force," the criminal complaint said. "Instead, Officer Noor recklessly and intentionally fired his handgun from the passenger seat, a location at which he would have been less able than Officer Harrity to see and hear events on the other side of the squad car."

    The officers did not turn on their body cameras until after the shooting, and there was no squad camera video of the incident.

    The lack of video was widely criticized, and Damond's family members were among the many people who called for changes in procedure, including how often officers are required to turn on their cameras.

    The shooting also prompted questions about the training of Noor, a two-year veteran and Somali-American whose arrival on the force had been celebrated by city leaders and Minnesota's large Somali community. Noor, 32, had trained in business and economics and worked in property management before becoming an officer.

    Then-Chief Janee Harteau defended Noor's training and said he was suited to be on the street, even as she criticized the shooting itself. But Harteau — who was on vacation when the shooting happened and didn't make her first public appearance until several days after the shooting — was forced out soon after by Mayor Betsy Hodges, who said she had lost confidence in the chief.

    Harteau's replacement, Medaria Arradondo, quickly announced a policy change requiring officers to turn on their body cameras in responding to any call or traffic stop. Recent reports show the department is not yet in full compliance.

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    Damond's shooting was the third high-profile police shooting in Minnesota in recent years in which a prosecutor made a charging decision rather than relying on a grand jury, a process criticized for secrecy and for the rarity of officers being charged. But in this case, Freeman convened a grand jury to investigate, but maintained the decision to charge would be his.

    The move came about a month after Freeman was captured on video at a holiday reception in December, complaining that investigators hadn't brought him enough evidence to charge Noor. Freeman apologized just a few days later, saying he shouldn't have discussed the case in detail in public. About a month later, dozens of officers received subpoenas to testify before the grand jury.

    Noor has been on paid leave since the shooting.

    ___

    Associated Press writers Doug Glass, Jeff Baenen and Steve Karnowski contributed to this report from Minneapolis.