It was a dicey case from the get-go, a baby Somalian cop shooting an Aussie blond woman who called 911 to bring him to the alley where she heard a woman scream. So the Reasonably Scared Cop Rule kicked in and, just like that, Justine Damond was shot, and died, by the hand of Mohommed Noor.
Noor was charged and convicted of Murder in the Third Degree, as well as Manslaughter 2. The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the Murder 3 conviction.
Chief Justice Lorie Gildea found that third-degree murder was an inappropriate charge on the grounds that such a conviction requires that a defendant’s conduct not be directed specifically at the person killed.
“The mental state necessary for depraved-mind murder… is a generalized indifference to human life,” Gildea wrote in the court’s opinion, “which cannot exist when the defendant’s conduct is directed with particularity at the person who is killed.”
Under Minnesota Statutes § 609.195, the mens rea is “depraved mind,” which might seem to generically apply to any wrongful murder but, in law, has a fairly distinct meaning.
We have interpreted the phrase in question many times, and we have consistently held that the crime of depraved-mind murder is a general malice crime.
Our precedent confirms that Noor is correct in arguing that a person does not commit depraved-mind murder when the person’s actions are directed at a particular victim. The particular-person exclusion is simply another way of saying that the mental state for depraved-mind murder is one of general malice.
The idea is that shooting a gun into a crowd of people reflects general malice of the sort “depraved mind” murder is intended to capture. Shooting at one particular person, on the other hand, requires a more specific intent to harm that one person. The problem with prosecuting police is that this interpretation, legally sound as it may be, also serves to preclude conviction of police officers for many wrongful killings.
There, attorneys for the state argued that the particular-person rule placed murder convictions almost completely out of reach.
While a non-cop may intend to kill an individual for malevolent reasons, most cop killings have nothing to do with a police officer having any specific intent to harm that particular person. They may be motivated by fear for their personal safety, unreasonable as that may be, or the intent to make an arrest or prevent the person from absconding, but not because they have any specific reason to want to kill that individual. Noor didn’t hate Justine Damond. Noor didn’t wake up that morning and say to himself, “I’m going to shoot Damond today.” It was a by-product of the circumstances in the hands of a cop who acted impetuously, not malevolently.
The state’s argument isn’t wrong; most police shootings reflect no personal malice, no specific intent to kill that one individual before them, but rather the combination of beliefs widely held by police officers about their personal safety invariably coming before their concern for the life of anyone else. And so the First Rule of Policing kicks in and, for better or worse, they shoot even when they shouldn’t.
The irony is that many will argue that there can be no greater demonstration of a “depraved mind” than someone who will shoot at the slightest, most remote, most attenuated fear rather than take any chance that a few steps down the line, something bad might happen to them. And, indeed, it is a depraved way to perform one’s public service job, no less go through life. But that’s not the law, and that’s not what is meant by “depraved mind” murder when the action is directed at a particular person.