Minnesota Supreme Court Narrows Scope of Third-Degree Murder: State v. Noor

On Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court narrowed the prosecution’s scope of third-degree murder cases in State v. Noor. This is a highly publicized case throughout Minnesota and the nation. Noor, a Minneapolis cop at the time, was riding in the passenger seat of a squad car while on duty. He pulled out a gun, reached across his partner’s chest and fired a shot out of the car striking Justine Ruszczyk and killing her. Ruszczyk was merely trying to the attention of the officers and was unarmed.

Noor was later charged with second-degree intentional murder, second-degree manslaughter, and third degree depraved-mind murder. At the conclusion of his trial, a jury found Noor guilty of second-degree manslaughter and the third-degree charge. Noor appealed his conviction for third-degree depraved-mind murder for insufficient evidence. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, although it was not unanimous.

Taking his battle to the Minnesota Supreme Court, Noor argued again that a particular-person exclusion applies to depraved-mind murder. There are two clauses in Minnesota’s third-degree murder statute. One offense, known as depraved mind, states that “[w]hoever, without intent to effect death of any person, causes the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life, is guilty of murder in the third degree…” The second type of third-degree murder deals involves someone causing a death by distributing controlled substances. The prosecution charged Noor with the first clause of third-degree murder.

In Noor’s appeal, his particular-person exclusion argument focuses on the idea that someone directing their actions at a specific person does not mesh with the generalized indifference to human life that depraved-mind murder prohibits. Noor reasoned that a person with a depraved mind without regard to human life is more of a general state of mind where someone is acting crazy and happens to kill someone. Not that someone was acting crazy towards one specific individual. That individualized intent is better proscribed in the intentional murder and manslaughter statutes. Because the particularized-person exception applied, the Minnesota Supreme Court determined that there was insufficient evidence for third-degree murder and reversed Noor’s conviction on that count. The court remanded Noor’s case back to the trial court for Noor to be sentenced on the second-degree manslaughter charge, which should result in less prison time for Noor.

While Noor still stands convicted of a manslaughter charge, this decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court should narrow the scope of third-degree murder charges being filed by prosecutors across the state. Third-degree murder is sometimes thrown in a complaint among other murder and manslaughter charges by prosecutors. If the defendant was acting towards a specific person, then bringing a third-degree murder charge like Noor’s will very likely be thrown out for lack of probable cause. Another notable case, State v. Chauvin, will also assuredly have the third-degree murder conviction overturned. But, Chauvin was convicted on all other counts and will very unlikely have any of his prison time reduced because his other convictions were more serious offenses.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense lawyer and DWI lawyer in Minnesota. Super Lawyers named him a Rising Star for the past six years; and the National Trial Lawyer’s Organization named him a Top 40 Under 40 Trial Lawyer the past seven years. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. DWI Lawyer Woodbury MN; Criminal Defense Lawyer Minnesota; and DWI Attorney Minnesota.

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