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Jury Selection To Begin For Minneapolis Officer Charged With Killing Unarmed 911 Caller

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Minnesota on Monday, jury selection begins in the trial of a former Minneapolis policeman charged with killing an unarmed 911 caller. Prosecutors allege Mohamed Noor acted recklessly when he shot Justine Ruszczyk. The 2017 incident drew worldwide outrage and led to the resignation of the city's police chief. Matt Sepic of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

MATT SEPIC, BYLINE: Two Minnesota winters have faded the wooden cross, pin-wheels and other items here at a small memorial at the end of the alley where 40-year-old Justine Ruszczyk died. Around the corner, a few homes still have yard signs saying Justice for Justine.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

SEPIC: At a playground up the block in this largely white, middle-class neighborhood, Michelle Rowe was out with her kids and a neighbor this week enjoying some welcome spring sunshine. Rowe, who's 42, says Ruszczyk's death changed the way she views law enforcement.

MICHELLE ROWE: I wouldn't call the Minneapolis Police Department like I would've before if there was something happening. I'd be way too nervous.

SEPIC: The facts of this case are not in dispute. On July 15, 2017, around 11:30 at night, Ruszczyk heard something unusual coming from the alley behind her home. Fearing it may be a sexual assault, she called 911. Two police officers pulled up. Ruszczyk, who also used her fiance's last name, Damond, went out to meet them. But before she could say anything, Officer Mohamed Noor reached across his partner's chest and fired a shot through their cruiser's open window.

The 9-millimeter round struck Ruszczyk in the abdomen. The officers attempted CPR, but paramedics would declare her dead nine minutes later. The 33-year-old Noor has refused to speak to investigators. But according to court documents, his partner said they were startled after hearing a thump from behind their squad car. There is no video of the incident because neither officer had activated his body camera.

The shooting dominated the news here in Minnesota and also in Australia, where Ruszczyk grew up. Her death came a month after a jury in nearby St. Paul acquitted a suburban officer in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile, a black school cafeteria supervisor. The officer headed to trial Monday is Somali-American. Ruszczyk was white. Nevertheless, Black Lives Matter activists joined her friends and neighbors in protests.

Minneapolis City Council member Abdi Warsame, who's also Somali-American, says this police shooting, like others, has widened the rift between law enforcement and communities of color. He thinks some coverage has unfairly focused on Noor's ethnicity.

ABDI WARSAME: That was - for us, it was very dangerous because there's already a lot of Islamophobia. And there's a lot, you know, of racism going around in the country. What we were afraid was that this would add to that situation.

SEPIC: Warsame trusts that Noor will get a fair trial. University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris studies police shootings. He says jurors will have to determine whether Noor acted as any reasonable officer would. He's charged with both second and third-degree murder as well as manslaughter. Harris says that gives the jurors several options.

DAVID HARRIS: That allows the jury to think about the case, well, maybe he didn't intend to kill. Maybe it was accidental but in a kind of negligent or reckless way.

SEPIC: If jurors find Noor guilty, he'd be the first Minnesota police officer convicted in a line-of-duty death. But an acquittal would not end his legal troubles. Ruszczyk's family has filed a $50 million civil suit against Noor and the police department. For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.