Kimberly Potter trial: 8 key questions, answered

A vigil and march in honor of Daunte Wright
People gather around a makeshift memorial for Daunte Wright on May 2 in Brooklyn Center, Minn.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News file

Former Brooklyn Center, Minn., police officer Kimberly Potter is charged in the shooting death of Daunte Wright on April 11.

Wright’s killing set off days of protests and property destruction in the Twin Cities suburb, with demonstrators saying Wright’s killing was an example of racial bias by police against Black people.

Here’s what you need to know. Click on a link to jump to a section.

What happened on April 11?

Some of what led up to Wright’s killing will be contested at trial.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

According to the criminal complaint, Wright was driving a white Buick through Brooklyn Center when he was pulled over by a group of officers shortly before 2 p.m. Officers told Wright that they’d pulled him over because he had an air freshener in his rearview mirror and the tabs on his car were expired.

Police ran a check on Wright’s name and discovered that he had an outstanding arrest warrant. Wright complied when asked to get out of his car, but as officers tried to handcuff him, he slipped away and got back into the car.

Potter is heard on body camera footage telling Wright, “I’ll Tase ya.” She pulls her firearm and points it at Wright, shouts “Taser” three times, then shoots her handgun. The bullet hit Wright in the chest and pierced his heart.

Wright’s car traveled down the street and crashed into another vehicle. Potter is recorded saying, ”S—-, I just shot him” just seconds after firing. A minute later, she said, “I’m going to prison,” and “I killed a boy.”

Officers provided medical care to Wright but he died at the scene.

Who was Daunte Wright?

Two women hug in front of a painting.
Del Shea Perry (center) hugs Katie Wright in front of a painting of her son, Hardel Sherrell, who died in Beltrami County Jail in 2018 after not receiving medical treatment, at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis on May 25. Wright's son, Daunte Wright, was killed by police in Brooklyn Center in April of this year.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Daunte Wright was Black and 20 years old. He had a son, aged 2 at the time of Wright’s killing. His father told the Washington Post that Wright dropped out of school two years earlier due to a learning disability. His family has said he planned to get his GED.

Who is Kimberly Potter?

Daunte Wright Officer
Kimberly Potter, a former Brooklyn Center police officer.

Potter, who is white, was a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center Police Department and former head of the officers’ union. She’d completed annual certifications for both Tasers and firearms. She resigned after the shooting.

She’s being represented in court by attorney Earl Gray, who defended former St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez in the killing of motorist Philando Castile during a traffic stop in 2016. A jury acquitted Yanez the following year.

How often do officers mistake their firearms for stun guns?

There aren’t hard numbers collected by any official agency. But an academic study in 2012 found that it happened about once a year.

The most high-profile incident happened in Oakland, Calif. In 2009, a police officer shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was Black. In that case, the officers’ attorneys argued that he’d mistakenly pulled his gun instead of his stun gun. Jurors found that officer guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He eventually served 11 months in prison.

Charges against an officer in Lawrence, Kan., who shot and injured someone while intending to stun them were dismissed two years ago. The judge presiding over the case said there wasn’t evidence that she’d acted “recklessly,” as defined by Kansas state law.

In yet another incident, a police officer in suburban St. Louis shot and injured a suspected shoplifter, and said she’d mistakenly used her gun instead of her Taser. Criminal charges in the 2019 at case were dismissed at the end of November after both the victim and the former police officer agreed to go through a restorative justice mediation.

Only three defendants serving as police officers have been convicted after firing their firearm when they meant to use their Taser, according to a New York Times analysis.

How do officers distinguish between a Taser and a gun?

Typically, officers are trained to keep the Taser, which is usually brightly colored and lighter than a gun, on the side of their nondominant hand. The criminal charges in this case say that Potter had her gun on her right side and her stun gun on her left, set up in a way that would have required her to use her left hand to pull the Taser.

A defense filing in the case has argued that Brooklyn Center police wear holsters that are reversible, allowing them to draw their weapons with either hand. Prosecutors are alleging that officers in Brooklyn Center were explicitly warned about the risk of mistaking a gun for a Taser during their training.

Under what circumstances are officers allowed to use Tasers?

The manual for the Brooklyn Center Police Department says that Tasers should be used to “control a violent or potentially violent individual,” or someone who appears to present a threat to officers or others.

It also outlines avoiding the use of a Taser when it might lead to collateral damage, for instance, when they’re operating a vehicle. Officers also are supposed to avoid aiming at subjects’ head, neck or chest.

Stun guns or Tasers are thought of as “less lethal weapons, said James Densley, a criminologist at Metropolitan State University. But the public has become increasingly skeptical of their use following incidents in which the weapons weren’t effective or led to someone’s death.

Densley said the public should be asking whether officers are using de-escalation techniques in the first place to avoid force and whether police officers need to be doing tasks like enforcing traffic violations when there isn’t a direct threat to public safety.

“In many ways, the police find themselves between a rock and a hard place, because they're being told to enforce laws that in many cases, if you ask officers themselves, they don't want to be enforcing,” Densley said. “When they do enforce those laws, they come into conflict with the general public who think that these are ridiculous laws —  things escalate really quickly.”

What are prosecutors alleging, and do we know how Potter’s defense will respond? 

Potter is charged with first-degree manslaughter, which requires that the defendant caused someone’s death through the reckless use or handling of a firearm, She’s also charged with second-degree manslaughter, which requires that Potter created an unreasonable risk of causing Wright’s death while using her firearm.

Prosecutors in Potter’s case have highlighted the extensive training she received on Tasers and her long experience in the police department.

But the defense has signaled that they’ll argue that Potter’s shooting of Wright was an accident, and that she hadn’t meant to kill Wright.

Georgetown law professor and attorney Angi Porter said the state has to show the former officer was reckless, or culpably negligent.

“They’re going to do that by bringing in her background, her training, her expertise,” Porter said, and “this should not have happened,” Porter said.

Prosecutors may have trouble proving either charge beyond a reasonable doubt, said Ameer Benno, an appellate and constitutional law attorney based in New York who has written about the case for the National Law Review.

He said part of the prosecution’s argument appears to be that Potter should have known that she was holding her firearm and not her Taser, and defense attorneys are expected to counter that.

Benno said jurors will be asked to consider whether a reasonable officer in the same situation could have taken the same actions as Potter. He said previous court decisions have largely sided with officers in situations like this.

“Both of those charges require, as some element of the proof, that there be some unreasonable action on the part of the police officer,” Benno said. “In order to prove the crimes against Kimberly Potter, they have to prove that her action, had she known she was pulling her duty weapon instead of the Taser, was unreasonable under the circumstances.” 

When does the trial start and how long will it last?

Jury selection is set to start Tuesday. Opening statements will be made on Dec. 8. The trial is expected to last about two weeks. The judge has said she anticipates the trial will conclude by Dec. 24, Christmas Eve.

After closing arguments are made, jurors will deliberate over the charges.