Judge restricts access to evidence in police shooting

Published 7:11 pm Friday, March 29, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS — The judge overseeing the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer who shot and killed an unarmed Australian woman has set tight restrictions for how the courtroom will be run and ruled Friday that members of the public and media will not view graphic evidence that is presented to the jury.

Mohamed Noor, 33, goes on trial Monday in the July 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszcyzyk Damond, a 40-year-old life coach who called 911 to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her home. The case drew international attention. Noor is charged with murder and manslaughter.

Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance ruled Friday that body camera footage recorded after the shooting, medical examiner’s reports and other evidence that could be graphic will be shown only to the jury, attorneys and herself, according to local media reports. She cited a strong media interest in the case, and said she was preserving Damond’s privacy.

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“It’s inflammatory, potentially,” Quaintance said, according to the Star Tribune. “It’s emotional and it shows the deceased in extremely compromising situations, and I don’t see any value in that being shown outside the people directly involved in the case.”

But Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, told The Associated Press that concerns about privacy or inflammatory material aren’t reasons to block access to evidence. Without a compelling reason, if Quaintance doesn’t at least allow for access to the evidence shortly after it is shown in court, Anfinson said, “That’s just unconstitutional.”

Anfinson said that once the jury has seen the evidence, showing it to the public will not have any impact on Noor’s right to a fair trial.

Graphic evidence is often shown in high-profile cases, including the trial of former St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who was acquitted in the death of Philando Castile. In that case, the public viewed video footage of the shooting as it was presented to jurors.

In another big Minnesota case, jurors and the public listened to a chilling audio recording of homeowner Byron Smith killing two teens who broke into his home, and viewed autopsy photos of the victims.

Quaintance has set other tight courtroom restrictions for the trial. Despite requests to hold the trial in one of the courthouse’s larger rooms, she is holding it in a room that only has about two dozen seats. Eight seats have been set aside for the media and 11 for the public. Additional seats were set aside for family members and a sketch artist. Video and audio will be streamed into an overflow room.

She has also clamped down on security, requiring a secondary level of screening outside her courtroom and barring all electronic recording devices from the floor.

The Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists called the restrictions “overreach and an unnecessary infringement of First Amendment rights.” They called on the county and state court administrators to move the trial to the largest courtroom possible.

Bradford Colbert, an adjunct professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said the district court has an enormous amount of discretion in these circumstances.

“The defendant has a right to the public trial. The question is, what right does the public have outside of the defendant? If the defendant wanted to close it off, that might be one thing, but the public has a right to access as well,” Colbert said.