By Travis Fedschun, ,
Published January 25, 2018
A Minnesota prosecutor is convening a grand jury as he weighs whether to charge a Minneapolis police officer in the 2017 shooting death of Justine Damond, officials said Wednesday, a month after the prosecutor ripped investigators over the handling of the controversial case.
The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis confirmed to FOX9 that several of its members were issued subpoenas related to the case calling them to testify at some point in the near future.
Damond, a 40-year-old life coach who was a dual citizen of Australia and the U.S., was killed by Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor in July just minutes after she called police to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her home. Noor hasn't been charged, but Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said weeks ago more investigating was needed in the case. He also told activists in a recorded conversation he didn't have enough evidence and investigators "haven't done their job."
“I’ve got to have the evidence. And I don’t have it yet. And let me just say, it’s not my fault,” Freeman said in a video that was posted on Facebook. “So if it isn’t my fault, who didn’t do their jobs? Investigators, and they don’t work for me. And they haven’t done their job.”
The president for the union that represents the Minneapolis Police Department's rank-and-file officers told the Minneapolis Star Tribune about 35 to 40 officers have been subpoenaed to testify. Lt. Bob Kroll told the newspaper the officers would cooperate.
“Unfortunately, the federation cannot answer the obvious question the media is asking: How can County Attorney Freeman retain charging authority while simultaneously submitting the case to a grand jury?” he said in a statement to the newspaper.
The Hennepin County Attorney's office said in a statement Wednesday that because grand jury proceedings are secret, "we cannot comment on grand jury subpoenas or any testimony that occurs before a grand jury."
"Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman will continue the office’s two-year-old policy where he makes the decision on whether or not to bring charges in officer-involved shootings. We will have no further comment," the statement said.
In recent years, Freeman has said he would no longer use grand juries to decide whether officers would be charged in police shootings. Instead, Freeman said he would make those decisions himself to provide more accountability and transparency, according to the Associated Press.
Grand juries can be helpful in investigations because they can subpoena witness testimony and other evidence in a case, but they are typically used in state court to make charging decisions. Lying before a grand jury can result in perjury charges.
The attorney for Matthew Harrity, Noor's partner on the night of the shooting, told the Star Tribune that Harrity got a grand jury subpoena Wednesday. Attorney Fred Bruno told the newspaper the subpoena "came as a surprise." Harrity has told investigators he was startled by a loud noise right before Damond approached the driver's side window of their police SUV on July 15. Harrity, who was driving, said Noor then fired his weapon from the passenger seat, shooting Damond.
Damond, who was unarmed, died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen. Her death has drawn questions over Noor’s experience and training. The Somali-born cop was part of an accelerated police cadet program that required only seven months of training, a nontraditional route that aims to help those who have a college degree enter law enforcement.
Noor's attorney, Thomas Plunkett, issued a statement Wednesday saying Freeman's comments "leave me unclear as to what he is doing." He added "it would be unethical and potentially unlawful to comment publicly on this development. Worse — any public comment would jeopardize the fairness of an important judicial function."
Noor has not spoken publicly about the case and has declined to speak with state investigators. The officers didn't turn on their body cameras until after the shooting, and there was no squad-car camera video of the incident.
Last month, Damond's family asked for a more rigorous probe after Freeman's recorded comments about investigators.
"We implore Mr. Freeman and the prosecutor’s office to continue to pursue a rigorous investigation and examination of evidence of the events leading up to Justine's death," her father, John Ruszczyk, told reporters in Sydney. "We will wait patiently while this occurs, but insist that this investigation be done, and done right."
Robert Bennett, an attorney for the Damond family, said Wednesday he and the family support Freeman's use of the grand jury and think it's the right thing to do. Bennett said it's disappointing that subpoenas were necessary to get witnesses, including police officers, to be truthful.
"This is a very unique procedure to have to use, but we applaud it," Bennett said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.