The family of an Australian woman shot to death by a Minneapolis police officer has hired an attorney who represented the family of black motorist Philando Castile, who was also slain by a Minnesota police officer.
Minneapolis attorney Bob Bennett confirmed Thursday to The Associated Press that he was representing the family of Justine Damond, who died Saturday night shortly after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her home.
Officer Mohamed Noor shot Damond, a 40-year-old life coach, once through the window of his police vehicle after she approached the car. Noor’s partner told state investigators that he had been startled by a loud noise right before the shooting. Noor has declined to be interviewed.
Bennett, who helped Castile’s family reach a nearly $3 million settlement with the suburb of St. Anthony, was in a deposition Thursday and not immediately available for an interview.
He told a Minneapolis television state that Damond’s family in Australia is in disbelief.
“She obviously was not armed, she was not a threat to anyone, nor could she have reasonably been perceived to be,” he told WCCO-TV. Bennett strongly disputed the suggestion from an attorney for Noor’s partner that the two officers might reasonably have feared an ambush.
“I think that is ludicrous, that is disinformation,” Bennett said. “It doesn’t have any basis in fact.”
Noor, who has been with the department almost two years, cannot be forced to talk to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He will have to give a statement as part of his department’s internal investigation.
According to the state bureau, Noor’s partner, Officer Matthew Harrity, told investigators he was driving in the alley with all of the vehicle’s lights off when he was startled by a loud noise, which authorities did not describe. Harrity said Damond appeared at the driver’s side window “immediately afterward” and Noor fired, striking her in the abdomen. She died at the scene.
When it comes to talking to authorities, defense attorneys and legal experts said police officers have the same constitutional right against self-incrimination as everyone else.
“Any lawyer that would recommend to him that he should give a statement to the BCA should be disbarred,” said Joe Friedberg, a Minneapolis defense attorney who’s not involved in the case. “Nobody should ever speak to law enforcement when they’re the subject of a criminal investigation.”
In contrast, Officer Jeronimo Yanez in the nearby suburb of St. Anthony sat down with state agents last summer the day after he shot Castile. Prosecutors used his statement as evidence against him during his manslaughter trial, but the defense used it, too. Jurors apparently accepted Yanez’s claims that he saw Castile’s gun and believed his life was in danger. Yanez was acquitted.
The Minneapolis Police Department’s internal affairs unit can compel Noor to give a statement as part of its investigation, and fire him if he refuses, but that statement cannot be used against him in any criminal investigation, Friedberg said.
Assistant Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said an internal use-of-force investigation has been opened, which is standard whenever an officer discharges a weapon. The police chief has asked that the review be expedited, but much of the information needed is in the hands of state investigators.
Police did not respond to questions Wednesday about the internal investigation. Noor’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, has not responded to interview requests from The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, details that have emerged raised new questions about whether proper police procedures were followed.
KSTP-TV, citing a source it did not name, said the two officers thought they were being targeted for an ambush when they heard a pounding noise on the driver’s side. Noor had his gun on his lap, the station said.
The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension did not confirm the KSTP report. Harrity’s attorney, Fred Bruno, told the Star Tribune it was “certainly reasonable” for the officers to fear a possible ambush.
Several criminal law professors who spoke to the AP said it would be unusual if Noor had his gun out when officers were checking out a report of a potential assault. But they said he might have been in a heightened state of awareness in light of recent ambushes of police.
Remy Cross, a criminologist at Webster University in suburban St. Louis, said the fear can become a “self-feeding, self-fulfilling prophecy” when law enforcement officers feel they always need to be on guard against people who might be targeting them.
David Klinger, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, said it would make no sense for Noor to have his gun out because it wasn’t a “hot call,” such as a report of shots fired.
And it’s also unusual, but not unheard of, for officers to turn their lights out to make a “dark and silent approach” if they’re trying to conceal themselves, said Jens David Ohlin, vice dean of the Cornell Law School in Ithaca, New York.
Harrity has been with the Police Department for one year, Noor for roughly two years. When asked about pairing the two newer officers together, Arradondo told reporters Tuesday that both men were “fully trained.”
Ohlin said it’s not necessarily a violation of procedures to pair inexperienced officers with each other, but it makes sense to pair a senior officer with a junior officer.
Transcripts of 911 calls that were made public Wednesday show Damond called dispatchers twice to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her home.
Damond made her first call at 11:27 p.m., when she said she heard a possible sexual assault. She told the dispatcher she wasn’t sure but thought a woman was in distress. She called back eight minutes later when no officers had arrived and told the dispatcher she was worried they had the gone to the wrong address.
Arradondo told reporters that officers searched the area and found no suspects.