Maria Luevano ‘21
This past Friday, UVA Law Faculty sponsored the Use of Force Symposium centered around the 2017 case of a Minneapolis police officer convicted of murder for shooting a 911 caller. The event was presented by the two attorneys who prosecuted the case—Assistant Hennepin County Attorneys Amy Sweasy and Patrick Lofton. Timothy Longo, former Charlottesville Police Chief and Adjunct Professor at the Law School, was also present. Longo was a key advisor to the prosecutors when they were deciding whether or not to prosecute the officer. The case was highly complex and unprecedented for the city of Minneapolis. It raised issues including the rigor and quality of investigations of officer-involved shootings by an outside agency, police training, the use of body-worn cameras, race and immigration, and the challenges of trying a case in an international spotlight. The prosecutors opened by discussing their reasons for making the details of the investigation and trial as public as possible. Their office, with the support of the victim’s family, hopes that this transparency will contribute to the national conversation around police use of force and shootings in a meaningful way and induce change in the way these investigations are conducted.
Sweasy and Lofton highlighted a number of facts about this case that made it different from many police shootings that make news headlines. Notably, the victim, Justine Ruszczyk, was a white woman who had moved to Minneapolis from Australia. Ruszczyk called the police around 11:30 p.m. to report sounds of a woman in danger. Police officer Noor and his partner responded to the scene and did not find anything amiss in the quiet, affluent neighborhood. They parked briefly before leaving the area, when an unknown silhouette appeared next to their car, scaring the two officers. They couldn’t tell that the stranger was Justine, who had placed the 911 call. While Noor’s partner reached for his gun, Noor fired out of the car window and struck Justine, who died on scene. The two officers then turned on their body cameras and called for assistance. What happened following the shooting and the way the officers handled the situation was the subject of investigation by both Prosecutors Sweasy and Lofton, as well as the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).
The prosecutors walked through what their investigation found, despite the lack of cooperation from both the Minneapolis Police Department and numerous missteps in the BCA’s own inquiry. Body camera footage from officers on scene proved inconsistencies in witness testimony about whether Noor was interviewed following the shooting and what his partner saw. The BCA did not follow up on these inconsistencies and discounted information that the prosecutors thought may be relevant, such as the fact that one of the victim’s neighbors also called 911 that night to report sounds of a woman screaming. Sweasy and Lofton wonder if this was a missed opportunity to find a possible witness to the shooting, or a way to find the original potential victim that Justine had called 911 about. The BCA also did not thoroughly collect and maintain evidence, including the officer’s squad car, which was washed and returned to service before the prosecutors could collect evidence. This was the type of practice that led Sweasy and Lofton to work on making changes to the way investigations into police use of force are conducted in the county. They believe that many of the Bureau’s lapses were informed by efforts to continue the status quo and assumptions that were made in favor of the police officers, instead of following potentially inconsistent evidence. Sweasy and Lofton hope to change the attitude around these investigations, and they maintain that just because something has been conducted a certain way for years does not mean it has to continue.
In addition to the high-profile nature of the case, the trial was complicated by a number of factors. The prosecutors opined that many cases involving police shootings do not go to trial, resulting in a lack of case law on the issue. This meant that the question of whether the officer’s actions were “objectively reasonable at the time of the shooting” was challenging to answer. They were also challenged by Minnesota statutes that made it difficult to determine the appropriate charge in this type of case. They ultimately decided on third degree murder, which uses a “reckless indifference” standard. In the prosecutor’s favor, they also took this opportunity to address the case as if it “had no limits” and admit any evidence they could. The prosecutors explained how their expert witnesses were not only crucial at trial, but also served as their teachers. Expert witnesses, including then-Chief Longo, helped the prosecutors better understand the issue of police use of force. In the end, Noor was convicted of third-degree murder and received a 150-month sentence. His lawyer has released a statement outlining plans to appeal.
Sweasy and Lofton ended their presentation with a discussion of what they have reflected on and learned from their experiences investigating and trying this case. Ultimately, transparency around this issue has been liberating for them. It has been important for their office, as well as the victim’s family, that everything possible is made public. They also celebrate that the case has contributed to a noticeable shift in the way that Minnesota conducts investigations into police use of force. In answering a question, Longo emphasized how it has never been more important to conduct these types of investigations regardless of the victim’s identity. He advised that communities need to demand this type of action, for the better of the law enforcement profession.