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Officers didn't ID selves in fatal Minneapolis shooting of Winston Boogie Smith Jr., attorneys say

“As he raised the phone all she could hear was gunfire and saw Winston Smith slump over,” the attorneys for a woman who was with Smith said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — The woman who was with a St. Paul man when he was fatally shot by members of a U.S. Marshals Service task force during an arrest attempt in Minneapolis said through her attorneys Thursday that the law enforcement officers were not in uniform and did not identify themselves as authorities when they surrounded the SUV with their guns drawn.

Norhan Askar was on a date with Winston Boogie Smith Jr. and was sitting in an SUV in a Minneapolis parking ramp on June 3 when Smith, who was Black, was fatally shot as authorities tried to arrest him on a weapons violation. Authorities have said Smith showed a handgun, and that evidence shows he fired it. Askar’s attorneys said previously that she never saw a gun on Smith or in his vehicle.

Winston Boogie Smith Jr.,on May 31, 2021 in Minneapolis.
Winston Boogie Smith Jr.,on May 31, 2021 in Minneapolis.Norhan Askar / AP

Askar’s attorneys reiterated that Thursday, and released additional information in advance of a lawsuit that they say will allege Askar’s civil rights were violated. Askar did not appear at a news conference with her attorneys, Christopher Nguyen and Racey Rodne, but they released a statement on her behalf.

The attorneys said Askar met Smith, 32, through mutual friends and they had been dating for several weeks. They went to a restaurant for lunch and drinks, walked back to Smith’s SUV, got inside, “and were suddenly surrounded by unmarked cars and people with guns.”

“These people were dressed in neither sheriff nor peace officer uniforms. They yelled commands and did not announce themselves as law enforcement of any kind,” the attorneys said. “While yelling commands for them to put their hands up, multiple armed people targeted their weapons upon her and Mr. Smith.”

Askar’s attorneys said that she was “scared for her life” and complied, and that Smith had a mobile phone and began to record for Facebook Live.

“As he raised the phone all she could hear was gunfire and saw Winston Smith slump over,” the attorneys said. When asked if they were suggesting that law enforcement mistook the phone for a gun, Nguyen said: “I think that’s a logical inference.”

When asked whether task force officers are supposed to identify themselves as law enforcement, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service said he could not comment due to the ongoing investigation. A spokeswoman with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension also had no additional comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

The attorneys said Askar was pulled out of the SUV, handcuffed and put in the back of an unmarked car. She stayed in handcuffs until paramedics gave her medical attention. The attorneys said an officer later asked her how her date was.

Askar experienced trauma from seeing Smith killed next to her, and she is still healing from injuries she received when she was sprayed by broken glass, her attorneys said.

Nguyen said that Askar knew Smith for more than six months, and at some point, someone suggested he had a warrant. When she asked him about it, Smith told Askar he had gotten into some trouble but the case had been dismissed. According to court records, Smith was wanted for allegedly being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Authorities were trying to arrest him when a Ramsey County sheriff’s deputy and a Hennepin County sheriff’s deputy who were members of the task force fired their weapons. Both deputies were working in an undercover capacity so their names are barred from being released under state law, state investigators have said.

State investigators have also said they are unaware of any video of the incident. Investigators said there is no body camera or squad camera footage, and they are unaware of surveillance video. It was not immediately clear if Smith recorded any Facebook video before he was shot.

Local officials have said the deputies were assigned body cameras, but were told by the U.S. Marshals Service that they could not use them, despite an October change in Justice Department policy that would have allowed them to be used. The lack of body camera footage has raised questions, as Smith’s family members and activists continue to demand transparency.

Askar’s attorneys also called for transparency. They said the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension told them they failed to take gunshot residue samples from Smith’s body, which was washed by the medical examiner. They said such evidence would exonerate Smith.

The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said its lab doesn’t do gunshot residue testing because it doesn’t provide conclusive evidence about whether or when someone fired or handled a gun. Spokeswoman Jill Oliveira said in an email; “In a situation like this where guns were fired from inside and outside the vehicle in close proximity we would not be able to determine which gun the GSR (gunshot residue) came from.”

She said the BCA did not request gunshot residue testing from the medical examiner. She added that the BCA is conducting DNA testing and other examinations on the guns. Search warrant affidavits say authorities found a pistol and six cartridge casings inside Smith’s vehicle.

Activists said they believe Askar, and again decried the lack of body camera videos and transparency. They said they do not trust the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to investigate shootings involving police.

“We want answers in this case. We demand accountability in this case. We demand transparency in this case,” Nekima Levy Armstrong, an activist and civil rights attorney, said.

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said of Askar: “She has the truth in her eyes she has the truth in her mouth.”

Smith was shot as Minneapolis was already on edge since the death of George Floyd over a year ago, and the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright by an officer in nearby Brooklyn Center in April.