Ex-cop, Minneapolis want to put shooting lawsuit on hold

Published 9:57 pm Thursday, September 13, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS — The city of Minneapolis and a former police officer who shot and killed an Australian woman are asking a federal judge to put a $50 million civil rights lawsuit by the woman’s family on hold while a criminal case is pending.

In court documents filed in advance of a Friday hearing, attorneys for Mohamed Noor wrote that the civil case should be delayed in the “interests of justice” so Noor can fairly defend himself in both trials. The family of Justine Ruszczyk Damond disagrees, saying they deserve answers and that the cases should proceed at the same time.

Noor is charged with murder and manslaughter in the July 15, 2017, shooting of Damond , a 40-year-old life coach who was shot by Noor after she called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in an alley behind her home. Noor has not spoken to investigators, invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination. He has since been fired and no trial date has been set. Noor has not formally entered a plea, but his criminal defense attorney indicated in April that Noor intends to plead not guilty.

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In July, Damond’s father, John Ruszczyk, sued Noor, his partner, the city and the current and former police chief, alleging Damond’s rights were violated. He also accused officers of conspiring to cover up facts surrounding the shooting, and of making a conscious decision not to activate body cameras.

Attorneys for Noor say the criminal and civil cases are intertwined, and that Noor can’t invoke his constitutional rights in his criminal trial while defending the civil claims.

“If this case is not stayed, Noor will be forced to either claim his Fifth Amendment privilege and risk that decision being used against him in this case, or to vigorously defend this case and risk the prosecution using Noor’s defense to pursue the criminal case,” attorney Matt Forsgren wrote. “Either way, given the nature of the allegations in the civil and criminal actions, Noor is unable to effectively defend himself in both actions simultaneously.”

Attorneys for the other defendants echoed that, saying they can’t get evidence to defend themselves from civil claims while Noor invokes the 5th Amendment.

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, which is not part of the civil proceedings, has also asked the judge to pause the civil case while the criminal case is pending. Prosecutor Beth Stack argued there is strong interest in avoiding prejudicing a jury pool, and noted that evidence in the criminal case is under a protective order to bar wide dissemination.

Once the state criminal trial has been conducted, all the evidence will be public “and this civil litigation can proceed without jeopardizing the important criminal justice interests at stake,” she wrote.

Robert Bennett, an attorney for Ruszczyk, argued against delaying the civil proceeding. He said in court filings that he would be willing to agree to a protective order or other controls to ensure that Noor’s 5th Amendment assertions would have no effect on the criminal prosecution or defense.

The shooting of Damond, a dual Australian-U.S. citizen who had been living in Minnesota for more than two years, drew international attention, cost the police chief her job and forced major revisions to the department’s policy on body cameras. Damond’s legal name was Justine Maia Ruszczyk, but she had been using the last name of her fiance, Don Damond, professionally.