The family of Justine Damond, the 40-year-old Australian woman that was killed by a Minneapolis police officer Saturday, has hired the lawyer who represented the family of Philando Castile in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Family members in Sydney and Minneapolis have retained Bob Bennett, a Minnesota-based specialist in civil rights law and police misconduct who has handled several high-profile police shooting cases. Bennett most recently helped the Castile family reach a nearly $3 million settlement in the Twin Cities suburb of St. Anthony after a police officer killed Castile in July 2016.
Bennett told local CBS affiliate WCCO that the Damond family hired him because they are seeking justice and changes to police protocol. He said the Damond shooting stands apart from other cases he’s handled because the victim appears totally blameless.
“She obviously was not armed, she was not a threat to anyone nor could she have reasonably been perceived to be,” Bennett told WCCO.
The moments leading up to Damon’s death remain murky. According to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehensions (BCA), which investigates officer-involved shootings, Officer Mohamed Noor shot and killed Damon in an alley behind her home while responding to a 911 call she had placed.
Noor’s partner Matthew Harrity told BCA investigators that the officers were startled by a loud sound as Damond was approaching the driver’s side of their police cruiser. Harrity said Noor, who was sitting on the passenger’s side, fired his weapon through the open driver’s side window, fatally shooting Damond in the abdomen.
The BCA confirmed in a Tuesday statement that no weapons were found at the scene of the shooting. Police officials say that neither officer’s body camera was turned on, and the cruiser dashcam did not capture the interaction between Damond and the officers. Investigators are currently searching for the only potential witnesses to the incident, a young male cyclist that Harrity says stopped to watch officers give first aid to Damond.
Meanwhile, attorneys are speculating about what could have led Noor to shoot an unarmed woman. Harrity’s attorney Fed Bruno said Thursday the officers had a “reasonable” fear they were being targeted for an ambush as they drove into the dark alley behind Damond’s home, reports the Minneapolis Star Tribune. KSTP-TV, citing an anonymous source, reported that Noor had his gun on his lap in the moments before the shooting, though BCA investigators have not confirmed that claim.
“I think that is ludicrous, that is disinformation,” Bennett said of the suggestion the officers feared an ambush. “It doesn’t have any basis in fact.”
Noor has thus far refused to be interviewed by BCA investigators. Like any potential defendant, he cannot be compelled to make incriminating statements that could be using against him in a criminal trial.
“Any lawyer that would recommend to him that he should give a statement to the BCA should be disbarred,” Joe Friedberg, a Minneapolis defense attorney, told the Star Tribune. “Nobody should ever speak to law enforcement when they’re the subject of a criminal investigation.”
Minneapolis police can force Noor to give a statement in an internal investigation, or else face termination, but that statement could not be offered as evidence in criminal court.
Other than Harrity’s statement to BCA, police officials have shared little information about the circumstances leading up to the shooting. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges told reporters Tuesday that city officials can only release certain information about the case due to the ongoing investigation. (RELATED: Father Demands Answers About Australian Woman’s Shooting)
“We do have more information, though it’s frustrating to have some of the picture but not all of it,” she said.
Bennett says the Damond family in Minnesota and in Australia will consider filing a civil lawsuit at the conclusion of the criminal investigation. The family wants Minneapolis police to change protocols about when body cameras are turned and to remove Noor from service, reports WCCO.
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