Attorneys Peter Wold and Thomas Plunkett enter the courthouse with former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor prior to the start of his murder trial, charged in the 2017 fatal shooting of 40-year-old Australian woman Justine Ruszczyk Damond, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Adam Bettcher/File Photo
Sept 15 (Reuters) - The Minnesota Supreme Court vacated the third-degree murder conviction of a former Minneapolis police officer on Wednesday and ordered his resentencing on a lesser conviction in the death of an Australian-American woman who called for emergency help.
The ruling, based on an issue specific to state law, may figure into the conviction earlier this year of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin who was found guilty of third-degree murder and other charges in the death of George Floyd.
The woman, Justine Ruszczyk, 40, called the police on the night of July 15, 2017, after hearing a woman screaming near her home. As she approached the police vehicle, the police officer, Mohamed Noor, fired his gun at her from the passenger seat, killing her.
In 2019, a jury acquitted Noor, 35, of second-degree murder but convicted him of third-degree "depraved-mind murder" and second-degree manslaughter, and he was sentenced to 12-1/2 years in prison. An appeals court upheld the convictions.
“The issue before us on appeal is not whether Noor is criminally responsible for Ruszczyk’s death; he is, and his conviction of second-degree manslaughter stands,” state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea wrote.
But the high court overturned the third-degree murder conviction because it said the lower court erred in finding that Noor committed a "depraved-mind murder" while at the same time finding that he specifically intended to shoot Ruszczyk.
Rather, the court found in a 28-page ruling that a "generalized indifference to human life" necessary for a third-degree murder conviction in Minnesota "cannot exist when the defendant’s conduct is directed with particularity at the person who is killed."
The court remanded the case back to the district court that originally sentenced Noor so that he could be resentenced.
Under state sentencing guidelines for second-degree manslaughter, Noor, a Somali immigrant who has been in custody since his April 2019 conviction, could be released as early as next fall.
Since 2005, only about a half of the 140 non-federal U.S. police officers charged with murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty shooting have been convicted, according to data compiled by a Bowling Green State University criminologist. read more
One of them was Chauvin. His killing of Floyd, a Black man, after pinning his neck to the ground with his knee on a Minneapolis street in 2020 sparked nationwide protests.
Chauvin was convicted in April of second-degree murder and manslaughter in addition to third-degree murder, a charge the trial judge initially dismissed but later reinstated at the direction of the state Court of Appeals.
Since the appeals court based its decision in the Chauvin case on its now-overturned ruling that upheld Noor's third-degree murder conviction, Chauvin's third-degree murder conviction could be in jeopardy as well.
But since state rules require judges to impose sentences only on the most serious convictions, it is unlikely to affect Chauvin's 22-1/2-year sentence, which was based on his second-degree murder guilty verdict.
Chauvin's lead attorney, Eric Nelson, did not respond to a request for comment.
Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Franklin Paul, Mark Porter and Sonya Hepinstall
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