Jury finds Kim Potter guilty of manslaughter in Daunte Wright's death

Defense attorneys had told jurors Potter meant to use her TASER when she fired her handgun once into Wright's chest, and that her mistake was not a crime


By Paul Walsh, Chao Xiong and Rochelle Olson
Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — Jurors convicted former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter of both manslaughter counts filed against her Thursday in the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright, making her the third officer in Minnesota to be convicted of killing a civilian on the job.

Potter showed little emotion with her gaze cast downward as Judge Regina Chu read the guilty verdicts for first- and second-degree manslaughter. Her attorneys placed their hands on either of her shoulders.

In this screen grab from video, former Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter testifies in court, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021 at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn.
In this screen grab from video, former Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter testifies in court, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021 at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. (Court TV, via AP, Pool)

The jury of six women and six men reached their verdicts after receiving the case at 12:45 p.m. Monday. They convicted Potter of one count each of first- and second-degree manslaughter for killing Wright during an April 11 traffic stop.

Potter's defense argued that she had the legal right to use a Taser or deadly force in the form of a gun because Wright resisted arrest and put officers' lives at risk. They told jurors that Potter, 49, meant to use her Taser when she fired her handgun once into Wright's chest, and that her mistake was not a crime. Wright contributed to his own death by using marijuana and resisting arrest, Potter's defense argued.

Prosecutors argued that Potter acted recklessly and negligently. They told jurors that she received copious training during her 26-year career and should have known better, and that even deploying a Taser was inappropriate for the situation due to the risks it posed to others. Prosecutors meticulously walked through the differences between Potter's Taser and handgun at trial, and encouraged jurors in their closing arguments Monday to handle the deactivated weapons during deliberations.

Police had stopped Wright, 20, for expired tags and a dangling air freshener and attempted to arrest him after they discovered an arrest warrant for carrying a gun without a permit and a temporary restraining order filed against him by a woman. Wright had a female passenger with him at the time. Wright broke free of an officer, Anthony Luckey, attempting to handcuff him and jumped back into his car. Sgt. Mychal Johnson was standing outside the front passenger door and had reached into the vehicle to prevent Wright from shifting it into drive. Wright's car sped forward into another vehicle after Potter shot him.

Defendants with no criminal history like Potter would face about 7 years in prison for first-degree manslaughter and 4 for second-degree manslaughter, according to state sentencing guidelines.

Prosecutors filed a notice with the court in October stating their intention to seek a longer prison term than recommended by the guidelines. They did not specify how much time they would seek.

Prosecutors hope to prove two "aggravating factors" they believe would support a longer prison term.

"Defendant's conduct caused a greater-than-normal danger to the safety of other people, as she fired into a motor vehicle in which a passenger was present and two other officers were in close proximity while the vehicle was operational on a busy public street," prosecutors wrote in their filing.

The second factor, prosecutors wrote, was Potter abusing her position of authority as a police officer. Hennepin County District Judge Regina Chu, not jurors, will decide whether aggravating factors exist.

Jurors heard eight days of testimony and were sequestered while they deliberated the fate of Potter, who shot Wright with her gun immediately after yelling "Taser! Taser! Taser!"

Of the dozen who deliberated the case involving a white female officer and a Black man who was killed, six were women and six were men. Nine of the jurors were white, two were Asian women and one was a Black woman. Four jurors were in their 40s, three were in their 20s, two were in their 60s, two were in their 50s and one was in her 30s.

The jury presented two questions to Hennepin County District Judge Regina Chu about 4 p.m. Tuesday, and they were heard in open court about 4:30 p.m. with all the attorneys and Potter present.

The jurors' first asked Chu, "If the jury cannot reach consensus, what is the guidance around how long and what steps should be taken?" The question signaled that the jurors were struggling to reach the required unanimity on the charges.

Chu read again an excerpt from the jury instructions she read to the group Monday before they began deliberating: "You should discuss the case with one another and deliberate with a view toward reaching agreement if you can do so without violating your individual judgment. You should decide the case for yourself but only after you have discussed the case with your fellow jurors and have carefully considered their views. You should not hesitate to re-examine your views and change your opinion if you become convinced they are erroneous, but you should not surrender your honest opinion simply because other jurors disagree or merely to reach a verdict."

The other question had to do with removing zip ties securing Potter's gun to a cardboard box so they could better handle the unloaded weapon. Chu instructed the jurors to ask a sheriff's deputy guarding their deliberations to remove the zip ties, and then to have the deputy re-secure the gun with zip ties after they were finished handling it.

Potter's defense attorneys argued that she had the legal right to use a Taser or deadly force in the form of a gun because Wright resisted arrest and put officers' lives at risk. They told jurors that Potter, 49, meant to use her Taser when she fired her handgun once into Wright's chest, and that her mistake was not a crime. Wright contributed to his own death by using marijuana and resisting arrest, the defense argued.

Prosecutors argued that Potter acted recklessly and negligently. They told jurors that she received copious training during her 26-year career and should have known better, and that even deploying a Taser was excessive for the situation due to the risks it posed to others close by.

The prosecutors meticulously walked through the differences between Potter's Taser and handgun at trial, and they encouraged jurors in closing arguments Monday to handle the deactivated weapons during deliberations.

Police had stopped Wright, 20, for expired vehicle registration tabs and a dangling air freshener, and they attempted to arrest him after discovering an arrest warrant for a weapons charge and a temporary restraining order filed against him by a woman. Wright had a female passenger with him at the time.

Wright broke free of an officer, Anthony Luckey, attempting to handcuff him and jumped into his car. Sgt. Mychal Johnson was standing outside the front passenger door and had reached in to prevent Wright from shifting it into drive. Wright's car sped forward into another vehicle after Potter shot him.

Defendants with no criminal history such as Potter would face a roughly seven-year term for first-degree manslaughter and four years for second-degree manslaughter, according to state sentencing guidelines. Defendants in Minnesota must serve two-thirds of their sentence before becoming eligible for supervised release, which would allow them to serve the rest of their time outside of prison.

The prosecution filed a notice with the court in October stating its intention to seek a longer prison term than recommended by the guidelines should Potter be convicted. How much time being sought was not specified.

Prosecutors hope to prove two "aggravating factors" they believe would support a longer prison term.

"Defendant's conduct caused a greater-than-normal danger to the safety of other people, as she fired into a motor vehicle in which a passenger was present and two other officers were in close proximity while the vehicle was operational on a busy public street," prosecutors wrote in their filing.

The second factor, prosecutors wrote, was Potter abusing her position of authority as a police officer. Hennepin County District Judge Regina Chu, not jurors, would decide whether aggravating factors exist.

Deliberations began after the rival attorneys made their closing arguments Monday.

"At the heart of it, this case is a very simple case: reckless handling of a firearm and culpable negligence," prosecutor Erin Eldridge told the jurors. "She drew a deadly weapon, she aimed it, she pointed it at Daunte Wright's chest and fired."

When it was the defense's turn, Earl Gray hit back at several points the prosecution tried to make.

Gray pushed back on the prosecution alleging the defense sent jurors down a "rabbit hole" of hypotheticals, but rather the state was misleading when it played the police video in slow motion and didn't show the quickly unfolding encounter at regular speed on Potter's body worn camera.

Also, Gray said, Potter indeed saw the fear in Sgt. Mychal Johnson's face because "the body worn camera is here," he said, patting his midsection, and "her head his here," he continued, raising one hand.

Eldridge used Potter's own body worn camera video to argue that she could not have possibly seen any concern on the face of Johnson that he would have been dragged down the street by a fleeing Wright before she pulled the trigger.

Gray reminded the jury that they must presume Potter innocent, and to find her guilty they must determine that the state proved "each and every element of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt."

"It's the type of proof you act upon in the most important affairs of your life, and make no mistake about it, ladies and gentlemen, this is the most important affair of my client's life. It's the type of proof, I believe, that in 10 years when you look at yourself in the mirror and say 'By golly, I did the right thing when I found Kim Potter not guilty. That's beyond a reasonable doubt."

He emphasized that Wright was "the superseding cause of death" when he attempted to flee rather than cooperate with the officers.

"Everything after that, the officers did try to stop him," Gray said, also countering an expert witness for the prosecution who testified that the officers should have let Wright leave and arrest him later. "That's not protecting the public. That's not serving the public. They had to stop him."

[RELATED: 3 recommendations to mitigate TASER/firearm 'capture' errors]

She said that the case is not about any of the criminal suspicions police had of Wright that Sunday afternoon or about Potter being a good person, adding, "Even nice people have to obey the law."

"She knew she had a loaded gun on her duty belt, a gun that she carried every single day on the job, she carried it on her right side very day for 26 years ," Eldridge said. "And that's the weapon she used, that's the weapon she drew, that's the weapon she pointed and that's the weapon she fired. Members of the jury that's culpable negligence and that' s reckless handling of a firearm."

Eldridge walked the jurors through a frame-by-frame analysis from the body cameras of Potter and Sgt. Mychal Johnson, who earlier testified that he feared being dragged as they struggled with Wright in his vehicle. Eldridge attempted to show that Johnson was not in danger before Potter fired.

"If anybody saved Sgt. Johnson's life, it was Daunte Wright when he took a bullet to the chest," she said.

Eldridge repeated several times that Potter killed Wright, was trained well to know the difference between her Taser and her gun, that her actions were not a simple mistake and that the other office's were not in physical danger during the stop.

"She was aware of the risk of killing someone with that firearm," Eldridge said. She disregarded that risk."

As for the accidental nature of Potter have a deadly weapon in her hand, as a defense witness contended, the prosecutor said, "This was no little oopsie. This was not putting the wrong date on a check, this was not entering the wrong password somewhere. This was a colossal screw up; a blunder of epic proportions. It was precisely the thing she had been warned about for years and she was trained to prevent it. It was irreversible and it was fatal."

She also cautioned jurors understand that Potter's former colleagues who testified might have been biased toward her because they were fellow members of what they considered to be a "police family."

"How can we ask officers who've known and liked the defendant Kimberly Potter for years, have been a part of her police family for decades, how can we ask them to independently assess what happened on April 11?" Eldridge said. "'m sure most Brooklyn Center police officers would have preferred to not have to be here to testify before you. But they did. They had to. But the further away you get from the bias of the close relationship with the defendant … the clearer things become."

A more important relationship, the prosecutor argued, is the one between a police officer and their community they serve.

However, Eldridge said, "the defendant shattered that trust, [and] she shattered Daunte Wright's heart. She chose right instead of left, she chose wrong instead of right. She chose her gun, and she shot and killed Daunte Wright."

Eldridge encouraged the jurors to review the videos and handle the Taser and handgun that will be available to them during deliberations.

She said the videos will show that Officer Anthony Luckey and Sgt. Johnson did not feel they were in danger and "were "using a proportional amount of force [against Wright]. They were just trying to keep him from driving away."

Once in deliberations, she said, "You'll be able to hold that gun and hold that Taser … to get a feel for the two [and] see how different they really are."

As often as Eldridge reminded jurors that Potter killed Wright, Gray let them know that his client made a mistake and didn't commit a crime.

"Understand this," he said, "in the walk of life, everybody makes mistakes, and some of those mistakes are small, mistakes but some of them are very serious. She obviously made a mistake, it's called an 'action error.' Nobody's perfect, ladies and gentlemen, this lady made a mistake and my gosh, a mistake is not a crime."

He also drove home Wright's role in creating what Gray called more than once "chaos" as he resisted arrest.

"He really wanted to get away," Gray said. "He knew he was guilty of the weapons violation. He didn't want to go to jail and run the risk of a criminal case."

Gray also stood up for the reputations of the officers who testified, for the state as well as the prosecution, and backed all of Potter's actions at the shooting scene.

"Are they the kind of individuals who would lie, give a false opinion? No," the attorney said.

Summing up, Gray said the prosecution "failed in every element, miserably failed. ... Kim Potter is not guilty of these crimes."

In a rebuttal, prosecutor Matthew Frank emphasized that Wright died of a gunshot wound from a weapon fired by Potter, and said "a mistake" is not a defense.

"The judge will not give you an instruction that says a person is not guilty if they committed a mistake, that's not the law, no matter how often the defense says it was a mistake," Frank said.

He also wanted the jurors to understand who is truly responsible for Wright's death, often assigning the argument to the defendant by name and not nearly as often to her attorneys.

"To an absurd extent, Potter now attempts to argue that he caused his own death," said Frank, who drew several failed objections from the defense attorneys. "I want you to consider if we accept that argument, that he caused his own death, we have to accept that any time a person does not meticulously follow the demands of a police officer they can be shot to death and there would be no consequences to that officer. That's absurd."

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