The killing of Daunte Wright

Prosecutor in Daunte Wright's death not swayed by critics

Protesters rally in Stillwater
Nekima Levy-Armstrong (left), Washington County Attorney Pete Orput (middle), and Pete's wife, Tami Orput (right) talk outside of the Orputs' home on April 17 in Stillwater, Minn. Protesters were calling on Pete Orput to file more-severe charges against Kim Potter, the former Brooklyn Center police officer who shot Daunte Wright during a traffic stop.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News file

The day Daunte Wright was laid to rest, a small group of demonstrators gathered outside prosecutor Pete Orput's suburban home and, with microphones and a loudspeaker, demanded he file murder charges against the police officer who killed the 20-year-old Black motorist.

Orput, wearing a hoodie and khakis, stepped outside and attempted to explain why he had filed a manslaughter charge instead. After some arguing, Orput — visibly frustrated — finally ended it.

“I choose not to," Orput said of filing a murder charge. He thanked the group for being peaceful but said: “I won't give in to this.”

Wright was fatally shot April 11 by Kim Potter, who is white, during a traffic stop in suburban Brooklyn Center. Potter's body camera recorded her shouting “Taser! Taser!” before she fired, and the city’s former police chief said he believed she meant to use her stun gun.

People who know Orput, a former Marine who served in Vietnam before becoming a lawyer, describe him as fearless and willing to stand up for what he thinks is right.

He's “the kind of guy you want in the foxhole with you,” said Fred Bruno, a Minneapolis defense attorney. Bruno also described Orput as “very sensitive” and someone who “listens to all sides.”

Orput is just the latest prosecutor to feel the heat from activists who argue that killings of Black people by police are not charged seriously enough.

When George Floyd died in Minneapolis after being pinned by police last year, protesters hammered Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman for taking four days to file charges and then charging only Derek Chauvin with third-degree murder and manslaughter. Attorney General Keith Ellison took over the case, adding a second-degree murder charge against Chauvin and charging the other three officers.

Orput took Potter’s case under a year-old agreement in which Minneapolis-area prosecutors handle each other’s police-involved deaths. Protesters want Ellison to take it over, but he's said he has confidence in Orput.

Protester rally in Stillwater
Satara Strong-Allen speaks to protesters as a rally wraps up outside of Washington County Attorney Pete Orput's home in Stillwater.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News file

As he talked with the protesters outside his Stillwater home, Orput was grilled by Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and activist who told Orput he would have charged Potter with murder if Wright had been white. Orput seemed wounded, shaking his head: “I wish you knew me,” he said. “You wouldn't say that.”

Later, in an interview with The Associated Press, Orput said such insinuations are hurtful, but he's not angry about it because it's not true. He said he feels that being a prosecutor “is what God wanted me to do.”

"And I’ve taken full advantage of the opportunity, I hope,” he said. “I just love being a prosecutor. … Fairly holding people to account on behalf of victims is what I love about it.”

Many legal experts say the manslaughter charge fits what's known of Wright's death.

F. Clayton Tyler, a Minneapolis defense attorney, said he thought Orput did the right thing. Orput could have filed a third-degree murder charge, Tyler said, but proving it is “a whole different ballgame.”

Orput, 65, grew up in St. Paul and joined the Marines after high school. As a lawyer, he has worked many jobs, including as a prosecutor in Hennepin County, handling robberies, weapons and homicides. He also worked as general counsel for the state prison system and as a deputy attorney general.

Now in his third term as Washington County prosecutor, Orput has been working on a program that provides addicts with drug treatment, no questions asked. He was instrumental in setting up a special court for veterans in trouble with the law, and he has been working to keep the mentally ill out of jail and to get rid of the county's cash bail system. His office also made child sex trafficking and exploitation cases a priority.

If Potter's case goes to trial, Orput said he and Imran Ali, Washington County's assistant criminal division chief, will handle it.

Longtime friend Peter Ivy said Orput is quick-witted and good at trial.

“If you are not telling the truth on the stand, he will expose you," said Ivy, chief deputy county attorney in Carver County.

Perhaps Orput's biggest case in recent years was that of Byron Smith, who killed two teenage cousins who broke into his home in 2012. Smith was convicted of premeditated first-degree murder.

The trial featured chilling audio recordings in which Smith taunted the teens as they died and called them “vermin.” Orput told jurors that Smith laid in wait for the teens – setting up a perch that Orput described as a “deer stand.”

“He saw things in that case that a lot of people didn’t know about,” Bruno said. “When he found out this guy was hunting these kids like deer, that really did it for him.”

Orput also has gone after police officers. In 2002, he won arson convictions against a former police chief.

But his critics say he’s never charged an officer with murder. Murder charges against officers are rare nationwide, including in Minnesota, where only two have been convicted of murder, including Chauvin.

Critics say Orput could have brought murder charges in the 2015 death of Marcus Golden, who was fatally shot by two St. Paul officers after police said he drove a car at them. Orput said the incident was tragic but shouldn’t be confused with other high-profile shootings in which police were accused of using excessive force on minorities.

“This is not one of those cases,” Orput told Minnesota Public Radio News at the time. “I know folks want to pigeonhole it into that, but it’s not.”

Orput was diagnosed last year with Parkinson's disease and, after a doctor told him to simplify his life, stepped down from a commission examining state sentencing guidelines. He said the disease hasn't affected him much, although stress can trigger symptoms. “If I stay Zen, I'm usually OK,” he said.

Orput told the AP he could not talk about the Potter case — but that he would not cave to public pressure.

“That would be a complete sellout of my values and everything I’ve worked for.”