Explainer: What will jurors hear about Daunte Wright?

A person holds two signs, one in each arm.
Diamond Wright, sister of Daunte Wright, takes part in a protest in downtown Minneapolis as jury selection in the trial of former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter, who shot and killed wright, begins on Nov. 30.
Tim Evans for MPR News file

Jurors at the manslaughter trial for the former suburban Minneapolis police officer who said she mistakenly drew her handgun when she fatally shot Daunte Wright will hear testimony about the kind of person he was – within limits.

Prosecutors at the trial of Kim Potter, 49, intend to call Wright’s father to testify in an attempt to humanize Wright for the jury. But the defense will seek to portray Wright as a lawless person who had pending criminal charges against him, and will argue his own actions contributed to his death.

Potter, who is white, is charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter in the April 11 shooting of Wright, a Black motorist, in the suburb of Brooklyn Center. Potter has said she meant to use her Taser – but grabbed her handgun instead – after Wright tried to drive away as officers were trying to arrest him.

Just how much of Wright’s past the jury gets to hear will depend in part on what Potter knew at the time of the attempted arrest, under a pretrial ruling from Judge Regina Chu.

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“The torrid history of Mr. Wright is irrelevant if she didn’t know about it," said Mike Brandt, a Minneapolis-area defense attorney who is not connected to the case. "It doesn’t go into the calculus of — was it reasonable,” he said.

Prosecutors intend to call Wright’s father, Arbuey Wright, to the stand as they near the end of their case to present testimony under the “spark of life” doctrine. Such testimony designed to humanize a victim is barred in most states. But it’s allowed in Minnesota under a 1985 Supreme Court ruling that found prosecutors can present evidence that a murder victim was “not just bones and sinews covered with flesh, but was imbued with the spark of life.”

Wright's mother, Katie Bryant, provided some spark of life testimony on Wednesday, saying her son loved to play basketball and was a jokester, and was thinking about pursuing carpentry. She said Wright’s son, Daunte Jr., was born early at 28 weeks and while the baby was hospitalized, Wright fed him with a Q-tip, dipped in milk.

She said Wright, 20, was proud to be a father, but also worried because the boy was premature. “He was an amazing dad."

The two sides have pushed and pulled over what should be allowed in “spark of life” evidence. Potter's attorneys objected to five photos the prosecution wanted to introduce; Chu ruled that three would be admitted.

That spark-of-life evidence is not the only way in which the two sides will seek to sway jurors.

In opening statements, prosecutor Erin Eldridge showed a photo of Wright with the 1-year-old son he left behind. She mentioned how he once wanted to be a pro basketball player. She said he had just been given the family car to use as his own, and was taking it to be washed when he was pulled over — prompting him to call his mother. Eldridge repeatedly called him “scared” and a “kid.”

The defense used part of their opening statement to begin building an unsavory picture of Wright, starting with police smelling marijuana in his car, his lack of a license and valid insurance and an outstanding warrant for his arrest on a weapons charge. Potter's trainee partner that day, officer Anthony Luckey, had found the warrant when he ran a records check.

Court records show the warrant had been issued just days earlier after Wright failed to appear in court on charges from a June 2020 incident in Minneapolis. In that case, authorities alleged he had a pistol without a permit in a public place, a gross misdemeanor, and that he ran away from officers, a misdemeanor.

It’s not clear if Potter knew the exact details of the warrant.

Luckey testified that he found there was also an order for protection against Wright, which told him that Wright was not to have contact with a certain woman, but did not say why.

Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, said the warrant itself is highly relevant, because that’s the reason Wright was being arrested instead of just ticketed. The precise reason for the arrest might be questionable, he said.

“It comes down to, what relevance does this have in relationship to explaining why they are trying to arrest this guy,” he said.

Prosecutors say Potter had no knowledge of Wright’s prior criminal charges. If that’s the case, jurors likely won’t hear that Wright was charged with aggravated robbery after a 2019 arrest for allegedly demanding money from a woman at gunpoint, choking her and trying to pull the money from under her bra, where she had placed it, according to the complaint.

The matter was pending at the time of Wright’s death.

Defense attorneys have also asked the court to admit other allegations against Wright into evidence. Chu has ruled that a photo of Wright holding a gun will not be admitted.

Chu said alleged drug use by Wright may be relevant to explain his actions on April 11, and his possession of drugs would be relevant only if Potter was aware of it at the time of the shooting. Court testimony so far has indicated she was — as Luckey testified that he smelled marijuana in the car and saw marijuana residue on the center console.

Daly said any good or bad details that come out about Wright shouldn't matter when it comes to the charges against Potter.

“If you think it through, it’s really irrelevant whether the person was a saint or a sinner,” he said, adding: “You murder the worst person in the world, he’s still a victim and it’s a crime. You can’t take the law into your own hands … even the worst person has a right to life.”