A deep fracture between some Minneapolis police officers and the Hennepin County Attorney's Office has been exposed during two weeks of testimony concerning the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, raising questions about the agencies' working relationship and future.
Prosecutors trying former Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor for murder in Damond's death have hammered officers on the witness stand about their intermittent body camera usage at the shooting scene and refusal to meet with the County Attorney's Office for questioning. They have attempted to piece together a picture of pervasive secrecy among street officers and their direct supervisors at the scene, but it's unclear how jurors will relate that to Noor's state of mind on the night he killed Damond in 2017.
"It has become a far bigger part of the trial than I first expected," said longtime defense attorney Marsh Halberg, who attended parts of the testimony. "What does that have to do with whether Noor … shot off his gun? The argument will be that it goes to bias, but it has gone to far more than that."
Experienced attorneys say they have never seen such deep conflict between a law enforcement agency and prosecutor revealed in a Minnesota courtroom. While some predict a quick recovery, others question how the offices, which must work closely to solve crimes, can mend relations and engender enough public trust to effectively prosecute future cases.
"There's no question here that [prosecutors] are accusing many members of the Minneapolis police department of a conspiracy to obstruct justice," said defense attorney Joe Friedberg. "I think it's a real problem for the county to be claiming that these officers have entered into a conspiracy to cover up a crime, and then turn around two weeks from now and put them on as witnesses [in other cases] and vouch for their credibility."
Noor shot Damond on July 15, 2017, after he and his partner, Matthew Harrity, responded to her 911 call about a possible sexual assault behind her south Minneapolis home.
Harrity testified Thursday that Noor fired from inside their squad through Harrity's open driver's side window after Harrity heard a "thump" on the vehicle and a dark figure appeared at his window.
Police spokesman John Elder downplayed the tension with Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman's office. Freeman declined to comment.
"It is incumbent on us to work side-by-side with the other stakeholders in the criminal justice system," Elder said. "We have had a long and productive professional relationship. … Nothing has happened that changes that charge of us."
The subtext was palpable throughout the trial, which began April 1 with jury selection and resumes Monday. It was cast into the open April 15 when prosecutors asked officer Ty Jindra if he and about 20 officers met with union representatives in reaction to interview requests from the County Attorney's Office.
Jurors were ushered out of the courtroom as attorneys contentiously debated the meeting's relevance to Noor's trial.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Patrick Lofton read aloud an e-mail Jindra sent prosecutors in February saying he would not meet with them because of the county attorney's "poor treatment of us." Prosecutors asked to meet with officers after the shooting and again this year to prepare for trial. (Jindra also refused to meet with the defense.)
Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance was quick to note that there is "currently a political situation" between the two offices.
"No, no," Lofton said. "We don't think so. This is about this case."
Lofton said Jindra's concerns stemmed from a 2018 investigative grand jury convened by Freeman that subpoenaed officers to testify about the aftermath of Damond's shooting.
According to Lofton: The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was only able to interview Harrity and his and Noor's supervisor, Sgt. Shannon Barnette. Five other officers, including Chief Medaria Arradondo, voluntarily met with Freeman's office immediately after the shooting.
"I'm not saying there isn't a hint of prevarication here," the judge said, using a term for skirting around the truth.
Quaintance also described the prosecution's portrayal of the union meeting as a "conspiracy." Lofton rejected the characterization.
"I was not being sarcastic when I used the term conspiracy …," Quaintance said.
Al Berryman, a retired Minneapolis police officer and former president of the police union, said officers are likely torn, with some questioning Noor's actions while others are sympathetic. Prosecutors' decision to go after officers who were marginally involved risks deepening pre-existing divisions between the agencies, he said.
"Cops who feel that they're being persecuted are now going to think even further that they're being persecuted," he said. "You've got cops on both sides of this, and you've got a damaged relationship with the county attorney because of it. Nothing good can come out of it."
Still, he said, he expects the feud to eventually "blow over."
While officers often show solidarity with a colleague, that doesn't mean that they would lie under oath, said attorney Robert Richman, who has defended police officers.
"On some level, it's understood that cops are not going to be witnesses against each other," said Richman, "because you need to know that the next time you bust through the door of a crack den, you need to know that the guy who's supporting you is not pissed off at you because of something that you said to investigators."
Mary Moriarty, Hennepin County's chief public defender, said prosecutors should avoid turning the trial into a referendum on police behavior.
"[Jurors] are supposed to be narrowly focused to the actions and the state of mind of the accused, because we would never want to convict someone based on a jury's anger about someone else or something else that happened in the case," she said. "You would never want a juror who thinks that crime is out of control and that no matter what our client did, they're going to make this client pay because they think crime is out of control."
Current and former county attorneys said police and prosecutors have to establish healthy relationships that also allow them to hold each other accountable for mistakes.
"It just seems really contentious, and that's disappointing," said Washington County Attorney Pete Orput.
Former Ramsey County attorney Susan Gaertner said it's not unusual for tensions to arise when there is conflicting evidence.
"When you have a backdrop of whether or not a police officer acted reasonably in using deadly force, it does seem relevant to talk about how other officers, department leadership make decisions," she said. "Having said that though, sweeping narratives about a blue wall of silence … probably won't be too helpful to the jury in deciding whether, in this case under these facts, officer Noor acted reasonably."
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany