A Minnesota judge has severely limited the public and press’ access to one of the most high-profile criminal trials in recent memory, causing an uproar among reporters, media advocates, and legal experts who call the restrictions “unprecedented” and “unconstitutional.”
Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance is overseeing the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who is charged with murder for shooting Justine Ruszczyk Damond, an unarmed Australian woman who called 911 to report a possible sexual assault near her house in July 2017.
Quaintance ruled last week that the press and public will not be allowed to view “graphic evidence” — including officers’ body camera footage and autopsy photos — that will be shown to the jury in the courtroom. A television screen displaying the evidence will literally be pointed away from the public.
And media organizations are furious over a limited number of seats in the small courtroom, demanding it be opened to more reporters.
“This is a public trial using public resources in a case dealing with the way a public servant acted in his interaction with the public,” Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota professor who teaches media ethics and law, told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday. “The public has a right to know what’s going on in the courtroom.”
The case has drawn national and international attention because of the victim’s nationality, the unusual circumstances leading up to the shooting, and how rare it is for a police officer in the US to face murder charges for an on-duty shooting.
Jury selection began Monday, and the trial is expected to last four weeks.
Damond, a 40-year-old yoga teacher and life coach who was engaged to be married to her American fiancé, Dan Damond, called 911 twice to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her house on the night of July 15, 2017.
Noor, who was in the passenger seat of the squad car, fatally shot Damond through the driver’s side window after she approached the car in the alley.
Noor’s partner, Matthew Harrity, who was driving, told authorities that both officers were “spooked” after hearing a thump on the car and seeing a figure approach the driver’s side window. Neither of the officers’ body cameras were turned on until after Damond was killed.
Noor has declined to speak to investigators about the shooting and has not provided a public statement, except to express his condolences to Damond’s family through his attorney. His lawyer didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
Critics have slammed the judge, saying the public does not have enough access to the evidence that will be presented in a trial dealing with a member of the police force.
Last week, Quaintance ruled that “graphic evidence” — including Noor’s body camera footage after the shooting and autopsy photos — will only be shown to the jury, the attorneys, and the judge, and not to members of the media and public in the courtroom.
The evidence will be shown on a TV screen inside the courtroom — but the screen will be turned away from the gallery, where the members of the public and reporters are seated, the Star Tribune reported.
Calling the evidence “emotional” and potentially “inflammatory,” the judge cited privacy concerns for Damond during a pretrial hearing Friday.
“It’s emotional and it shows the deceased in extremely compromising situations” — after she was gunned down by the officer — “and I don’t see any value in that being shown outside the people directly involved in the case,” Quaintance said in her ruling, the Star Tribune reported.
Legal experts and members of the press found Quaintance’s decision to be “very unusual” and her reasoning “illogical.”
“I can’t think of a time when a court has excluded the media and the public from seeing evidence like this, particularly in a case of intense public interest where a public employee shot and killed a citizen,” Suki Dardarian, managing editor of the Star Tribune, told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday.
Dardarian, who has been in the media business for 30 years and has covered courts in Minnesota and other states, said that no one in her newsroom recalled a criminal trial where the media and public couldn’t see evidence that the jury could.
The Star Tribune is one of five local media outlets that have formed a coalition to lobby for more press and public access to Noor’s trial.
The coalition filed a motion Tuesday objecting to the judge’s rules concealing the evidence at trial, calling it a constitutional violation.
“It goes without saying that there is significant public interest in this case, both in Minnesota and around the world,” the motion said. “That high degree of interest counsels in favor of greater access to the trial, not less. However, the Court’s order will prevent the public from seeing an important portion of the evidence against Mr. Noor, in violation of the First Amendment and the common law right of access to criminal trials.”
“It’s the de facto closure of the criminal court,” Leita Walker, a lawyer representing the media coalition, told BuzzFeed News. “That’s unconstitutional.”
Walker, who has more than a decade of experience fighting for more press and public access to judicial records, said that it was “rare” for a judge to impose such a restriction on evidence that is often presented in an open court.
“We have a long history in the US of criminal justice being open to the press and the public,” Walker said. “The fact that this is a high-profile case heightens the need for the press and public access. It doesn’t diminish it.”
Typically, in cases where there are concerns about “inflammatory” evidence, such as gruesome crime scene photos, defense attorneys would file a motion asking the judge not to allow the jury to see the evidence because of concerns that it could “inflame the jury’s passions,” in legal parlance.
But in Noor’s case, Walker said, the judge is proposing the opposite: Show the jury potentially inflammatory evidence, but not the media and public.
“If the evidence is important enough to be shown to the jury, the public has a right to see it too,” Kirtley, the University of Minnesota professor, said.
Kirtley and Dardarian said that it was crucial for the public to know about the evidence that forms the basis of a jury’s verdict to acquit or convict a defendant so that the public can assess if the trial is fair.
Kirtley said that the judge’s “very, very unusual” decision was in contradiction to the US Supreme Court precedent that gives the public the constitutional right to access courtrooms and their proceedings.
“There’s a case that is of great interest to the public, so the public doesn’t have the right to know about it? It’s an illogical conclusion,” she said.
Media outlets covering the trial have also slammed the “woefully inadequate press and public access,” including the judge’s decision to hold proceedings in one of the smallest courtrooms and limiting the number of seats reserved for local, national, and Australian media.
In an amended order issued Monday evening, Quaintance increased the number of seats reserved for local and international media in the 37-seat courtroom from 8 to 16 after media organizations publicly expressed their concerns.
In a letter sent to Quaintance and the Hennepin County chief district judge last week, the media coalition questioned why the court did not consult the press while planning the logistics of the trial, and urged the judge to move the trial to a larger courtroom within the same building.
“The Coalition is dismayed that, on the eve of trial, uncertainties remain about whether the press and public will be able to adequately monitor one of the highest profile trials the State of Minnesota has ever seen,” the letter said.
The media also criticized the arrangements for an “overflow courtroom” to accommodate people who couldn’t fit in the main room. But reporters are already expressing concerns about the quality of the live video and audio feed, calling it “sub-optimal.” Reporters also criticized the ban of electronic devices in the overflow room.
On Monday, Quaintance amended her order to allow 20 seats in the 78-seat overflow room to be reserved for the media on a first-come, first-served basis, but has still banned all electronic devices in the room.
Quaintance “cannot comment on this question outside of the official court record,” and the district court will not comment, a spokesperson for the district court told BuzzFeed News.
In a statement last week, the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists called Quaintance’s actions “an overreach and an unnecessary infringement of First Amendment rights to access a public proceeding.”
“These kind of restrictions are unprecedented in the history of Minnesota jurisprudence,” the statement said. “We consider these restrictions serious breaches of the public trust.”