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Noor to be sentenced Friday; prison time likely

Ex-officer Mohamed Noor leaves the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis on April 30, 2019. Noor, who was found guilty on third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of Justine Ruszczyk, faces his sentence Friday. Evan Frost / MPR News file

MINNEAPOLIS — Mohamed Noor, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of murder in the shooting death of 911 caller Justine Ruszczyk, faces his sentence Friday, June 7. Criminal justice observers expect he'll get prison time, but this kind of conviction is so rare it's not clear how many years he'll see.

Nationally, only three other police officers have been convicted of murder for an on-duty death, said Phil Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who's tracked the data since 2005. The average sentence for those murder convictions is 12.5 years in prison.

The only times police officers who were convicted in an on-duty death have received no prison time were for manslaughter cases where the officer shot someone and the bullet ricochet killed someone else, according to Stinson.

"The only thing that would surprise me would be if [Noor] received a sentence that did not include any sort of incarceration," he said.

Hennepin County prosecutors haven't filed any documents indicating what sentence they're seeking for Noor, but the presumptive sentence for the murder and manslaughter convictions in Minnesota is about 12.5 years in prison for someone like Noor, who has no criminal history. Coincidentally, that is the average sentence for the three other police officers around the country who were convicted of murder.

"It's really hard to predict in this situation," Stinson said. "Based on the limited data we have, looking at cases of how officers have been treated in the cases across the country, I would predict a sentence in the range of 12 to 20 years is most likely for Mohamed Noor."

On the eve of his sentencing, hundreds of Noor's supporters gathered Thursday night outside the Hennepin County Government Center to show their support for the former officer. Among them was Noor's father, Mohamed Abass, who said he was hoping the judge would deliver a fair sentence.

"My son needs justice," Abass said. "The Hennepin County Attorney's office charges was unfair. The sentence that will come tomorrow, we hope [will be] a positive result."

Others protested what they consider a racist criminal justice system. Noor is black, Muslim and of Somali descent; Ruszczyk was white and from Australia.

One person held a sign that read: "If Noor was a white police officer he would have been on paid leave."

Nathaniel Khaliq, former president of the St. Paul NAACP, said over decades in the Twin Cities, he's seen numerous cases in which police have shot unarmed black people. In those instances, he added, prosecutors were far less aggressive in pursuing charges.

"Over the years, we have watched this system have a standard in place ... of how they would exonerate officers and come to defend them, in many cases before the facts were even out," Khaliq said. "It was obvious to many of us that the only reason this case got to the point of where it got was because this brother [Noor] was black, he was Muslim and he was an immigrant."

Noor fatally shot Ruszczyk, also known as Justine Damond, in July 2017 after she called 911 to report what she thought was a possible sexual assault happening in the alley behind her south Minneapolis home.

A jury in April found Noor, 33, guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. His monthlong trial included testimony from dozens of police officers and investigators. Noor is the only officer ever convicted of murder in Minnesota.

Noor, one of the responding officers, was riding in the passenger seat when Ruszczyk appeared at the driver's side window. He testified that he shot to protect his partner, officer Matthew Harrity, who was driving the squad car, after he heard a loud bang and exclaimed, "Oh Jesus."

Since 2005, 104 police officers were charged in on-duty killings nationwide. And of those, 36 have been convicted of a crime, Stinson added, so it's a small sample of cases to begin. He said the sentences for those cases ranged from no incarceration on the low end to 40 years in prison on the high end.

Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of murder for shooting Laquan McDonald in Chicago was sentenced to about seven years.

In Colorado, James Ashby received a 16-year sentence for killing Jack Jacquez after a confrontation in 2014.

Roy Oliver, of Texas, was the officer who shot 15-year-old Jordan Edwards as he rode in a car after a party. He was sentenced to 15 years.

The defense has filed 44 letters of support for Noor, who was the first Somali-American cop hired at the city's 5th Precinct. The letters, written by family, friends and members of the community, attested to Noor's character and contributions to the Somali community in an effort to persuade the judge to impose a lighter sentence than what the guidelines recommend.

As a judge in criminal cases, Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance isn't afraid to impose harsh sentences. In a 2017 high-profile case, Anthony Sawina was convicted of attempted premeditated murder and other charges after shooting several rounds into a car full of Somali-American men, who accused him of using an anti-Muslim slur. Quaintance went above and beyond the 25 years that prosecutors sought for his sentence and gave him 39, and the state appeals court upheld the sentencing.

Noor's defense attorneys have asked Quaintance to consider sentencing Noor to probation.

They also recommend Noor turn himself in at the workhouse for a week on the dates of Ruszczyk's birth and her death every year for as long as he's on probation.

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