For the fourth time, a Hennepin County judge has sealed the names of the jurors who convicted ex-Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor in the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
Hennepin District Judge Kathryn Quaintance cited public interest and ongoing media coverage of Noor’s 2019 conviction as reasons why she is resealing the jury list.
“On November 30, 2019, the Star Tribune published a newspaper article questioning this Court’s continued sealing of the juror information,” Quaintance wrote in an order dated Wednesday. “The article includes quotes from a Star Tribune editor as well as a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, criticizing the actions taken by the Court to protect jurors’ identities following what was a very high profile trial covered by international media.”
Star Tribune Senior Managing Editor and Vice President Suki Dardarian challenged the judge’s reasoning.
“While I respect the responsibilities of the court, these continued rulings are unprecedented and without basis in fact or law,” Dardarian said. “By the court’s logic, the sealed information will be released only when the media and public no longer express interest in the case of a police officer shooting and killing a resident in their community.”
One Minnesota legal scholar and a local attorney both said Quaintance’s most recent order lacked clarity about the supposed harm facing the jurors, who were the first in Minnesota history to convict a police officer for fatally shooting a civilian on duty.
“It seems to me that she just hasn’t laid out why she’s doing this,” said Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “I don’t think, number one, interest by the [Star Tribune] … and number two, critiques of her decision to keep it [sealed], and three, general interest from the public mean you can necessarily come to the conclusion that jurors might face potential harassment.”
After a monthlong trial watched around the world, jurors convicted Noor, 34, last April of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for shooting Damond. Noor was responding to Damond’s 911 call about a possible sexual assault behind her south Minneapolis home on July 15, 2017, when he shot the 40-year-old while sitting in the passenger seat of a police squad. His partner, Matthew Harrity, was in the driver’s seat and did not fire his weapon.
Noor filed an appeal last July. The matter is pending.
A landmark Minnesota Supreme Court decision in 1995 gives judges broad latitude to seal juror lists in cases where jurors’ safety is at risk. The Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure also give judges discretion in releasing juror information.
But Daly said Quaintance’s order didn’t indicate that jurors faced explicit threats.
“Following the trial, the Court continued to receive letters and other correspondence from members of the public about its actions in nearly every aspect of the trial, including Defendant’s sentence,” Quaintance wrote in her order. “The Star Tribune’s November 30th article exemplifies the interest the media still has in this trial.”
Daly and defense attorney Marsh Halberg, who attended part of Noor’s trial as an observer, also raised doubts in the November Star Tribune article about Quaintance’s third order sealing the list.
Releasing jurors’ identities is considered fundamental to a defendant’s constitutional right to a public trial.
“The reason for a public trial is to safeguard the integrity of the legal system by allowing the public to observe the entire process,” Halberg said. “I think the delay in releasing the juror information will be an issue that continues to ripen, strengthen” the defense’s case for an appeal.
Quaintance first sealed the jury list last May and issued similar orders in July and October. In her three most recent orders she cited Noor’s appeal and subsequent public interest as another factor in keeping the names private.
“Do the jurors really need protection? Are there any threats to do harm in the letters?” Halberg said. “Her ruling has to be made based only upon safety concerns.”
Quaintance issued other decisions during Noor’s trial restricting media and public access. Several media outlets, including the Star Tribune, and open-government groups pushed back and won the right to view body-camera footage played in court after the judge initially ordered it played outside of the public’s view.
Last December in an unrelated case, Quaintance issued an order closing the first of two rare hearings recalling an entire jury to examine whether their deliberations were tainted. She banned the media and public from the first hearing to prevent influencing jurors who would be called at the second hearing.
John Conard and Kristin Zinsmaster, the attorneys for defendant Rodney Jackson, opposed the move without success.
“The defendant has a right to a fair and public trial,” Conard and Zinsmaster wrote before quoting case law. “ ‘The requirement of a public trial is for the benefit of the accused; that the public may see he is fairly dealt with and not unjustly condemned, and that the presence of interested spectators may keep his triers keenly alive to a sense of their responsibility and the importance of their functions.’ ”
Conard and Zinsmaster requested the unusual hearings after Rodney was convicted in November of second-degree murder, and it was revealed that a juror may have inappropriately discussed what’s taught in permit-to-carry classes and the “obligation to retreat.”
Daly and Halberg both said Quaintance’s order in the Jackson case was backed up appropriately by legal argument, although Daly said he would have wanted a public hearing were he representing Jackson.
The Jackson matter is pending.