Why has a grand jury been convened in the Justine Damond shooting case?

Minneapolis police officers have been called to testify in secret proceedings.
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What's happening?

A grand jury has been convened in the shooting of Justine Damond by Minneapolis police officer Mohammed Noor.

The Minneapolis Police Federation confirmed about 35-40 of its officers have been subpoenaed to testify in proceedings, according to the Star Tribune, including Noor's partner Matthew Harrity – the only witness to Damond's shooting.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman's office released a statement saying that he can't comment on whether a grand jury has been convened because they're secret, however he alone will make a decision on whether any charges are brought against Noor.

Why is this a surprise?

Because following the shooting of Jamar Clark in November 2015, Freeman said that he would no longer use grand juries to decide on charges in cases of officer-involved shootings – he would make the decision instead.

It follows criticisms at a state and national level after a series of high-profile killings of black Americans at the hands of police resulted in no charges following grand jury investigations.

The secret proceedings was criticized for their lack of transparency and accountability.

The circumstances now, however, are unusual, because Freeman has said he alone will make the decision on whether a prosecution will be brought against Noor, which is usually what the grand jury decides.

So what's going on?

A month ago, Freeman appeared in a video taken at a holiday party in which he discussed the Damond case with some union members, expressing frustration with the difficulty he was have bringing any charges.

The case had been investigated by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), which had passed a file onto Freeman's office, but Freeman was heard on the video saying: "I gotta have the evidence. And I don't have it yet."

A main sticking point he was having was proving circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, particularly in the instance of whether Noor feared for his life when he pulled the trigger.

"But I can't. He won't answer my questions and he doesn't have to," Freeman said at the time. (Remember, Noor didn't speak with investigators.) 

It could be, then, that he's using the grand jury as an extra investigatory arm, forcing officers to testify under oath in a more formal setting.

Damond's attorney Bob Bennett, speaking to MPR, applauded Freeman's move, saying: "It appears there has been a reluctance on the part of a number of officers to talk, and I'm happy that they are using the grand jury to compel that."

Criminal defense attorney Marsh Halberg told the Pioneer Press a grand jury could give Freeman a strategic advantage by locking down witness testimony ahead of a future trial, but noted he'd never seen a grand jury used in this way in Minnesota in his 40-year career.

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