Defence’s Justine gaffe as trial begins
THE last moments of Australian life coach Justine Ruszczyk Damond's life have been played out in dramatic scenes in court today as opening statements were made in the murder trial of her killer, former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor.
Damond, 40, had called 911 for help after hearing what sounded like a woman being attacked in the lane behind her home on a "hot summers night" in July 2017.
However, the defence's Peter Wold started off terribly, drawing gasps from the public gallery, when he opened by refering to to the victims as "Janine". He did not repeat the mistake.
Minneapolis prosecutor Patrick Lofton opened the state case by arguing that "you should be able to ask the police for help and feel safe".
"'OK, the police are here'. These are the last words that Justine Ruszczyk ever spoke to her fiance Don Damond," Mr Lofton told the court.
"He was out of town for work and she was inside their home on the phone."
Minutes later, as she saw the police car pass, Damond "went outside to talk to them".
"One minute and 19 seconds later, she said the words 'I'm dying'," Mr Lofton said.
"As she said those words she was standing outside the officers' conspicuously marked Minneapolis squad car cradling a gunshot wound to her abdomen and bleeding."
The shooting happened on a Saturday night in "by far and away Minneapolis's lowest crime area".
Mr Lofton said Noor had "taken aim" and shot Damond deliberately, to the shock of his partner, Matthew Harrity, who was driving the pair's squad car.
"He shot her through an open drivers side window of that car. He fired that shot without saying a word," Mr Lofton said.
Prosecutors were critical of the initial investigation into the shooting, saying that attending officers appeared to be trying to find a reason for Noor to have fired and that they appeared to be trying to create a cover-up by selectively using their body cameras to interview the two officers.
In his first interview with attending police officers, Mr Harrity seemed to indicate the pair was frightened.
"She just spoo ... (the word was not finished, according to the transcript) ... come up on us ... one shot," Harrity said, according to audio captured on the officer's body camera.
"Let's try to work up a suspect," the attending officer replied.
"No, our shots fired," Mr Harrity responded.
The first interview with Noor was not recorded, the court that the officer had turned off their body camera.
The court heard attending officers seemed to be trying to find a reason for Noor's actions.
"Well something must have spooked them," one attending investigator said to another, according to a transcript read by Mr Lofton.
"Maybe something came into contact with the sqad?", the other replied.
"Well maybe she slapped the squad," said the initial officer.
In a second interview with Mr Harrity, he was more clear that the pair heard a sound that frightened them.
"We pulled up here, we were about ready to just learn and go to another call," Mr Harrity said in his second interview.
"She just came up out of nowhere on the side of the thing and we both got spooked.
"I had my gun out, I didn't fire and then Noor pulled out and fired."
Mr Lofton said Noor's "state of mind" on July 15, 2017, was an important factor, with the most recent call he and Mr Harrity having taken being reports of a homeless woman wandering the streets close to the Damond's home.
"As they pulled into that alley it was dark, they turned off all the lights in their squad then rolled down their windows and they pulled their guns out," Mr Lofton said, adding that the pair did nothing to search for the source of the 911 call.
Noor, 33, is on trial for second degree murder and manslaughter.
Noor's defence argued that the rookie officer had been acting in self defence because he felt he and Mr Harrity were being ambushed, which was something "in the back of the minds of most police officers".
Judge Kathryn Quaintance admonished Mr Wold for repeatedly invoking other police shootings, saying: "We're not here for the headlines. Talk about the evidence in the case and what the evidence will show".
Mr Wold paid tribute to Damond, describing her as a "wonderful woman".
He said she was: "In all respects a remarkable human being. She did not deserve this. Her death has left huge gaps in the life of many."
"Mohamed Noor has been heartbroken for Justine Ruszczyk and her family from the moment he realised she was not the threat he reasonably considered her on that night," Mr Wold said.
But he said his client had been terrified, and using his police training, had responded with reasonable force.
Acting out the "fateful seconds" inside Noor and Mr Harrity's squad car, Mr Wold said the pair were getting ready to leave the call after finding no evidence of a crime and that Noor had just radioed that the pair was safe, shortly before 11.40pm.
It was silent in the dark alley behind Damond's home and as they noticed a bike rider nearby, they could hear a dog whining.
"Then bang on the back the squad ... in the stark silence, that loud thump on the back that car," Mr Wold said.
"And it's those split seconds that this case is all about."
Mr Wold said it was a "classic ambush situation" and Noor responded appropriately.
"He sees his frightened partner trying and looking and then sees him jump and yells "oh Jesus".
"(Harrity was) struggling to undo his weapon then this figure instantly appears in his window, raising a right arm.
"What happens next was immediate. It was a perfect storm with tragic consequences."
He said that Noor felt that: "Clearly in Harrity's mind it was an ambush".
"The evidence will show that this young man is a very decent person. Sometimes your job has negative and unwanted consequences and that is exactly what happened in that narrow and dark alley in the split seconds of that night."
Damond's Sydney family have travelled to Minneapolis for the trial and are sitting in the front row of the courtroom, next to Noor's father, mother and wife.
Her fiancé, Damond, is expected to testify later today.