Kimberly Potter trial: Case goes to jury as closing arguments end

Daunte Wright Officer Trial
Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu (left) swears in former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter before she testifies in court Friday at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis.
Court TV, via AP, pool

Updated 6:12 p.m.

The Kimberly Potter case is now in the jury’s hands following closing arguments Monday in the ex-Brooklyn Center officer’s manslaughter trial in the traffic stop killing of Daunte Wright.

The first day of jury deliberations has wrapped up. Deliberations will resume 9 a.m. Tuesday.

In final remarks before jury deliberation began, prosecutors assailed Potter’s conduct during the April traffic stop as reckless, negligent and deserving of a conviction.

“This was no little oopsie,” prosecutor Erin Eldridge told jurors. “This was a colossal screw-up. A blunder of epic proportions. It was precisely the thing she had been warned about for years and trained to prevent” as a 26-year police veteran.

"She betrayed her badge and she betrayed her oath,” Eldridge argued. “She betrayed Daunte Wright and her fellow officers, too, and her conduct was criminal."

A woman speaks behind a podium in a courtroom.
Erin Eldridge delivers closing arguments for the prosecution on Monday.
Screenshot of Court TV video

Potter’s defense said Wright caused his own death by his decision to try and escape from being arrested at the stop that day, creating a dangerous situation for officers that allowed for the legal use of deadly force and led to Wright’s killing.

“That’s what caused this whole incident. If he had gone and went with these officers, go in the squad car, go take your ride downtown, and it’s over,” defense attorney Earl Gray told jurors. Potter, he said, “didn’t cause this and she had a right to use deadly force” legally in that situation.

Attorneys set to make final arguments in Kimberly Potter trial
by Matt Sepic | MPR News

Eldridge assailed Potter’s actions during the stop, showing jurors frame-by-frame decision making that sought to refute defense arguments Potter acted to protect the safety of her fellow officers.

Eldridge repeatedly described Potter’s decision-making as reckless and negligent — the key elements of the manslaughter charges she’s facing. Potter has pleaded not guilty to first-degree and second-degree manslaughter.

The prosecutor urged jurors to push aside any sympathy they might have for Potter, who has said she mistakenly fired her service weapon instead of her Taser.

“It's not just a tragedy. It's manslaughter,” she said. “That she is an officer does not make it OK.”

Gray worked to cast doubt on the notion of Potter's recklessness, which is at the heart of the manslaughter charges: “She didn’t know she had a gun” in her hand at that moment, he argued. "How can you recklessly, consciously handle a gun if you don’t know you have it?"

A man speaks from behind a podium.
Defense attorney Earl Gray delivers closing statements on Monday.
Screenshot of Court TV video

He urged jurors to watch the video at real-time speed, not slowed down, to capture what he described as the chaos of the situation.

“Everybody makes mistakes. A mistake is not a crime. It just isn’t,” Gray said.

Prosecutors later rebutted that idea, arguing that calling it a mistake is not a defense in the use of deadly force. “That’s not the law, no matter how much the defense says ‘mistake,’” prosecutor Matthew Frank told jurors. "A mistake is not relevant here. It’s not a defense to the charges. The state does not need to prove, moreover, that she knew she had a gun in her hand."

Frank also attacked the defense argument that Wright caused his own death. “She didn’t use reasonable force,” he said. “She shot a man.”

Judge Regina Chu ordered in August that jurors would be fully sequestered during deliberations in the Potter trial. That means they'll be in a hotel and not at home. They are allowed to use electronic devices to talk with their families.

‘Taser! Taser! Taser!’

Potter was charged with first-degree and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of Wright as she and other Brooklyn Center officers, including one she was training, attempted to take Wright into custody during an April 11 traffic stop.

They’d pulled him over for an air freshener hanging from his car's rearview mirror and for expired license plate tabs. When they found he had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear on a gross misdemeanor weapons violation, they began to arrest him.

Wright jumped back into the driver’s seat as officers tried to detain him. On police camera video, Potter can be heard telling Wright “I’ll tase ya” while holding her 9 mm handgun in her right hand and pointing it at Wright.

Potter repeats “I’ll tase you,” and then two seconds later said “Taser! Taser! Taser!” One second later, she fired a single bullet into Wright’s chest; he drove off but crashed shortly after.

“(Expletive)! I grabbed the wrong (expletive) gun,” Potter is heard saying. “I’m going to go to prison.”

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.

The most serious charge against Potter requires prosecutors to prove recklessness. The second-degree manslaughter charge alleges that Potter acted with culpable negligence when she fired into Wright’s vehicle.

The prosecution during the trial didn’t characterize Wright's killing as racially motivated, but civil rights advocates have pointed to a long history of officers not being held accountable when they kill unarmed Black people. Potter is white. Wright was Black.

The Wright shooting happened on the same afternoon that several community groups held a rally in St. Paul calling for justice for people killed in encounters with police.

It also came during the trial of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who’d been charged with murder in the killing of George Floyd while in police custody. News of another fatal encounter between a black person and a white police officer sent the Twin Cities reeling again.

‘We were trying to keep him from driving away’

A week and a half of testimony concluded in dramatic fashion on Friday when the 49-year-old Potter took the stand in her own defense.

Answering questions from lead defense attorney Earl Gray, Potter said she feared for the safety of her colleague — Sgt. Mychal Johnson — who was leaning through Wright’s passenger door trying to grab the gearshift. Another officer was standing on the driver’s side trying to arrest Wright on a firearms warrant when he slipped away and back into his car.

Potter testified that Johnson had a look of fear on his face that she’d never seen before, and Wright had to be stopped. 

“We were trying to keep him from driving away. It just … went chaotic … and then … I remember yelling ‘Taser, Taser, Taser,’ and nothing happened. And then he told me I shot him.”

Daunte Wright Officer Trial
In this screengrab shown in court on Dec. 10, police bodycam video shows Potter reacting after the traffic stop in which she shot Daunte Wright on April 11.
Court TV, via AP, pool

Earlier Friday, a defense psychologist testified about so-called slip-and-capture errors, where a person performs one action while intending to do something else. But in two hours on the stand, Potter never explained why she grabbed her 9mm Glock handgun and not her Taser.

Potter’s attorneys argued that her use of force was justified in the end because Potter believed Johnson was in danger of being dragged by Wright’s car.

Prosecutor Erin Eldridge pushed back during cross examination. She pointed out that Wright did not have a gun and never threatened officers. Eldridge then said Potter couldn’t have been that concerned about Johnson’s safety, because she never checked on him after the shooting.

a protester holds up a sign with an image of Daunte Wright
A protester holds up a sign featuring Daunte Wright during march through downtown Minneapolis on the first evening of Potter’s manslaughter trial in Minneapolis on Dec. 8.
Tim Evans for MPR News file

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