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A Former Minneapolis Police Officer's Case Shows An Example Of Selective Justice


In Minnesota, where this current wave of protests began, four former police officers are facing charges in the death of George Floyd, who was killed in police custody on Memorial Day. And prosecutors point out that they have convicted an officer for killing a civilian once before - proof, they say, that the system can work. But as NPR's Leila Fadel reports, others see that case as yet another example that race plays a role in who gets justice.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: There's only been one known conviction and sentencing of a police officer in Minnesota for murder. That's former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor. He's Somali American and a Muslim.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Say his name.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Say his name.


FADEL: It comes up a lot at the protests in Minneapolis as an example of selective justice.

SHAKYRA WILCOX: Look at the black cop that killed the white lady. He got 12 1/2 years. And she - her family got, like, what? - $12 million or something like that?

FADEL: That's protester Shakyra Wilcox (ph). The city actually paid $20 million to the family of Noor's victim, Justine Ruszczyk Damond. State Attorney General Keith Ellison says Minnesota and the country have underprosecuted police-involved killings. But Noor's case proves a police officer can be held accountable for the killing of an unarmed civilian. He's leading the prosecution of the officers involved in Floyd's killing.


KEITH ELLISON: We can't control the past. All we can do is take the case that we have in front of us right now and do our good-faith best to bring justice to this situation. And we will.

FADEL: In 2017, Justine Ruszczyk Damond was trying to help. She called the police to report a possible sexual assault in the alley behind her house. When she walked up to the squad car in the dark to speak to police, Mohamed Noor shot her. He said he mistakenly thought he and his partner were in danger and was immediately remorseful. Ellison says the system worked for the Damond family.

ELLISON: Particularly when you consider the fact that she walked up to do nothing but talk to the police, ended up getting shot and killed.

FADEL: But activists say prosecutors have had many other chances to hold officers accountable for wrongdoing. Two Minneapolis officers, both of whom were white, were involved in the killing of Jamar Clark, an African American man, in 2015. He was shot in the head. The facts are disputed. Police say Clark reached for an officer's gun. Witnesses say he was handcuffed and didn't struggle. No charges were brought.

Philando Castile, another African American man, was shot and killed by a Minnesota police officer during a traffic stop in 2016. The Latino officer who shot Castile was acquitted. In both cases, outraged protesters filled the streets.

Kami Chavis, who heads the criminal justice program at Wake Forest University School of Law, says U.S. juries find it harder to see African Americans as victims in encounters with police. Meanwhile, in Noor's case, the jury sympathized with Damond, a white woman in an affluent neighborhood.

KAMI CHAVIS: It just really highlights the important role that race plays when we think about race and punishment. And we tend in our country to reserve punishment for racial minorities.

FADEL: When Noor was convicted last year, his brother, Ahmed Abbas Noor, had this message for those who said race and class didn't play a role in the outcome.


AHMED ABBAS NOOR: I need only point you to the words of Amy Sweasy, the prosecutor. When she said, her whole blonde hair, pink T-shirt - that was a threat to you? Had it been my mother in that alley, Amy Sweasy would never have said, her whole blackness, her hijab - that was a threat to you?

FADEL: The Hennepin County attorney's office declined a request for an interview. A spokesman said it didn't want to jeopardize the current prosecution of the officers accused in the killing of George Floyd. He added, surprisingly, the activists give us little or no credit for prosecuting officer Noor and often use it as another indictment of the Hennepin County Attorney's Office. Ellison says...

ELLISON: The problem is not the way the Mohamed Noor case was handled. The problem is the way all the other cases were handled. And so now we may have gotten to a point where, you know, we have a shot at real justice here. And we will see.

FADEL: Damond's fiance, Don Damond, says seeing another family grieve, the Floyd family, because police killed their loved one...

DON DAMOND: Just sort of slices the scar open.

FADEL: He says he only started to heal when Noor, the police officer that killed his fiancee, went to prison. He says he knows the facts of the cases are different. But...

DAMOND: I'm guessing they'll apply a lot of what they learned in trying to get a conviction for the four officers.

FADEL: Maybe, he says, Justine's legacy will mean justice for Floyd and others whose lives are taken in police encounters. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.