The former partner of an ex-Minneapolis police officer on trial for fatally shooting Justine Ruszczyk Damond testified that he feared for his life when a silhouette suddenly appeared outside their squad vehicle, but he didn’t immediately know whether deadly force was needed.
Toward the end of officer Matthew Harrity’s roughly five-hour testimony Thursday, the prosecution asked whether he’d been able to identify the silhouette’s features or determine if she was armed before Mohamed Noor fired his gun.
“I didn’t analyze the threat fully yet,” said Harrity, who acknowledged that he had unholstered his gun and held it at his ribs pointing down.
“So the use of deadly force at that point would be premature?” asked Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy.
“Yes, with what I had,” Harrity responded.
Harrity’s testimony provided prosecutors an opportunity to contrast his actions with Noor’s, but it also corroborated the defense’s version of events in which a loud sound on the squad startled the two and caused them both to fear they were being ambushed.
Harrity’s composure, including through two graphic body-camera videos showing Damond gasping for air in the final moments of her life, briefly cracked when he recalled through tears how traumatized he was in the days following the shooting.
“The first two days, I could sit and stare … I would stare,” he said, before pausing to take a sip of water. “I could stare at a blank TV and nothing was on the TV and I would hear gunshots.”
While he was persistent in defending his thought process that night, he shied away from presuming that Noor’s actions and perception of the events should have mirrored his own.
Harrity, 27, told the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) in an interview three days after the 2017 shooting that the episode “scared me as much as I could ever be scared,” according to a transcript read in court.
“You thought your life was on the line at the moment, sir?” asked defense attorney Peter Wold.
Yes, Harrity responded.
“If that figure had a gun and had time to fire it, you wouldn’t have had time to, would you sir?” Wold asked.
“No, I don’t believe so,” he answered.
Wold asked the officer whether Noor, 33, may have been trying to save him.
“Mohamed Noor saw you — he saw a very scared partner, didn’t he?” Wold asked.
“I would believe so, yeah,” said Harrity.
Defense attorneys from jury selection through cross-examination of fellow officers have pushed the importance of close work relationships that allow partners to act of their own volition in the best interest of the group.
“I loved working with officer Noor,” Harrity said under questioning by Wold.
“Did you trust that he had your back?” Wold asked.
“Yeah,” Harrity said, “every day.”
On high alert
Harrity, who has returned to work, testified Thursday morning that he was on high alert on July 15, 2017, as he and Noor drove down an alley in response to Damond’s 911 call about a possible sexual assault behind her Minneapolis home. Harrity was driving and stopped the squad at the mouth of the alley as they cleared the 911 call. He saw a bicyclist approaching from his right and waited for the person to pass.
“I had some weird feeling to my left side that I had to look over,” he said. “A silhouette of something.”
Harrity testified that as he scanned the street to keep tabs on the cyclist he heard a “thump” on the squad car and a “murmur” nearly simultaneously. He said a “black figure” appeared near his open window.
“That’s when I started reaching for my firearm,” he said.
He said the moment lasted “milliseconds” and prompted him to exclaim, “Oh [expletive]” or “Oh Jesus.” He told the court he feared it was a potential ambush.
In an instant, Harrity described hearing a “very mellow pop” and seeing a “flash.” He wiggled his limbs to see if he had been shot, then looked over to see Noor holding up his right hand. Harrity said his vision was affected by the flash and the squad’s computer lighting, but he believed he saw Noor holding a firearm. Noor’s hand was close to Noor’s body, he testified, and was not outstretched in front of Harrity.
He testified that Noor did not say anything before firing his weapon.
Harrity’s body-camera video was played in court, showing Damond taking deep gasps of air and groaning as she struggled for several minutes after being shot in the lower left abdomen.
Damond’s fiancé, Don Damond, and her brother and sister-in-law left the courtroom before the video was played, while her father and stepmother remained, both visibly upset at times. Harrity watched from the witness stand with his face resting in one hand, but he did not appear to display any overt reactions.
Jurors sat at attention, with one woman holding a hand to her face and occasionally shaking her head.
Harrity testified that Damond reached for the wound, backed away from the squad and said, “I’m dead,” or “I’m dying.” He said he and Noor helped her to the ground.
Harrity activated his body camera after the shot was fired about 11:40 p.m., the first time he had used the technology on a shift that began at 4:30 p.m.
“You’re OK,” Harrity says to Noor. “Calm down. Turn your camera on.”
“Stay breathing, stay breathing, stay breathing,” Harrity says to Damond. “Keep breathing.”
Harrity performs CPR on Damond.
“Noor, breathe,” he says to his partner. “Just breathe.”
Noor shifts around on his feet and kneels down next to Damond and performs CPR while Harrity attempts to open a plastic package containing a medical supply.
“You’re going a little too fast,” Harrity says to Noor. “You’re going a little too fast.”
“Where’s the ambulance?” Noor asks as Damond continues to take deep, labored breaths.
“Just keep doing it, Noor,” Harrity says as he struggles with the plastic packaging. “Do not stop. Do not stop.”
Officers Thomas Fahey and Mark Ringgenberg arrive, and Harrity tells Fahey that the shots were “our shots.”
Noor is seen kneeling over Damond but has stopped CPR.
“Keep going,” Harrity says. “Keep going. Keep doing it, Noor.” At some point, Harrity says, “She keeps coming back.”
Damond, 40, was pronounced dead at the scene. The bullet tore through a major artery and lodged in her spine.
Noor’s body-camera video was later played in court, showing the same events from his perspective. He also activated his camera after the shot.
Every call a threat
Early in his testimony, Harrity said that he weighs all the information at police calls to determine the level of threat he is encountering. He said he had removed the safety hood from his gun holster for the drive down Damond’s alley to prepare for possible threats.
“For me, every call I consider a threat, until it’s no longer a threat anymore,” Harrity testified. “I know it’s kind of a scary way of thinking.”
He added: “I want to go home every night, so I want to do everything I can to go home to my family at night.”
Sweasy asked Harrity if he had considered whether the figure at his window was the 911 caller or the woman Damond had reported in her 911 call.
“No, because I was thinking of my safety first,” he said. “At the time, yes, I was going to make sure I go home safely at the end of the night.”
Prosecutors raised questions about Harrity and Noor’s police work — at one point noting that their squad sat idle for 25 minutes that night while a prior unrelated 911 call went unanswered, prompting the caller to call dispatch three times. The duo eventually assigned themselves to the call.
Sweasy took issue with their handling of Damond’s call, revealing that it took them nine minutes to drive from the Fifth Precinct headquarters, where they had taken their break, to the alley because they declined to use their lights and sirens.
The officers spent 1 minute and 56 seconds checking the alley for the possible sexual assault before leaving, Sweasy said. She later added that Noor had cleared the call via the squad computer halfway through the alley.
Sweasy pounced when Harrity said he did not know what Damond’s “intentions” were when she approached their squad.
“You don’t have a sign on your car that says, ‘Stay back’?” Sweasy asked.
“No,” Harrity said.
Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391 Twitter: @ChaoStrib Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany