Updated 4 p.m.
A Hennepin County jury on Thursday found ex-Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter guilty of first- and second-degree manslaughter in the April 11 traffic stop killing of Daunte Wright.
Judge Regina Chu turned aside defense requests to allow Potter to be free on bail until the expected sentencing on Feb. 18., telling the court, “I cannot treat this case any differently than any other case.”
Potter, who had listened calmly as the verdicts were read aloud, was led out of the court in handcuffs. She faces about seven years in prison on the most serious count under the state’s sentencing guidelines, but prosecutors said they would seek a longer term.
“We have a degree of accountability for Daunte’s death,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said after the verdicts came down.
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“Accountability is not justice. Justice would be restoring Daunte to life and making the Wright family whole again. But accountability is an important step,” said Ellison, whose office prosecuted Potter.
Ellison urged law enforcement not to be discouraged by the verdicts. “When a member of your profession is held accountable, it does not diminish you. It shows that those of you who enforce the law are also willing to live by it, and that’s a good thing.”
‘Taser! Taser! Taser!’
Wright’s fatal police encounter began as a routine Sunday afternoon traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb.
Potter and the officer she was training pulled Wright’s car over for an air freshener hanging from his car's rearview mirror and for expired license plate tabs. A third officer also arrived on the scene.
Running a background check, they found Wright, 20, had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear on a gross misdemeanor weapons violation.
As he stood outside the car, the officers told Wright he was under arrest. As they began to handcuff him, Wright slipped away and jumped back into the driver’s seat.
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 as officers try to keep Wright from driving away.
She yells “Taser! Taser! Taser!” just before firing a single bullet into Wright’s chest; he drove off but crashed shortly after. Potter, 49, is heard saying on the video. “I grabbed the wrong (expletive) gun … I’m going to go to prison.”
Potter later told investigators she had intended to draw her Taser to subdue Wright but unintentionally drew her service weapon. She was charged with first-degree and second-degree manslaughter. As with the Chauvin case, the office of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison took over the prosecution.
Wright’s killing set off days of protests and property destruction in the Twin Cities suburb. It came during the trial of Chauvin, who’d been charged with killing George Floyd while in police custody.
Potter’s prosecutors never characterized Wright's killing as racially motivated, but civil rights advocates around the case pointed to a long history of officers not being held accountable when they kill unarmed Black people. Potter is white. Wright was Black.
Nine of the twelve jurors who decided Potter’s fate were white. One juror identified as Black; two identified as being of Asian descent. Six were men, six were women.
Jurors deliberated 28 hours over four days — longer than in the trials of ex-Minneapolis police officers Derek Chauvin and Mohamed Noor. Both were convicted for unlawfully killing people while on duty. By contrast, a jury went five days before acquitting ex-St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez in 2017 in the killing of motorist Philando Castile.
Watch as jury verdicts were read on Thursday:
‘She betrayed her badge’
A basic question sat at the center of Potter’s manslaughter charges: Was her conduct reckless and negligent in killing Wright?
The most serious charge against Potter required prosecutors to prove recklessness. The second-degree manslaughter charge alleged Potter, a 26-year police veteran, acted with culpable negligence when she fired into Wright’s vehicle with her weapon so close to her fellow officer that the ejected bullet casing hit him in the face.
Prosecutors throughout the trial assailed Potter’s conduct during the traffic stop as reckless and negligent despite her years of weapons training.
“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."
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.
Eldridge drilled down on Potter’s actions during the stop, showing jurors frame-by-frame decision making. At one point, Eldridge noted that Potter moved a piece of paper from her right hand to her left so she could grab her gun, which was holstered on Potter’s right side.
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?"
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.”
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.
Frank also attacked the defense argument that Wright caused his own death. “She didn’t use reasonable force,” he said. “She shot a man.”
As Potter’s sequestered jury deliberated this week, there were signs jurors were struggling to reach a unanimous decision. On Tuesday, the jury sent a note to Chu asking for guidance on what happens if they could not find consensus on the charges.
Chu reread her instructions, telling jurors to deliberate with eye toward reaching agreement. The judge also agreed to jurors’ request to remove zip ties so that Potter's gun could be held outside of the evidence box.
‘It just … went chaotic’
Potter’s attorneys had signaled throughout the trial that their client would testify in her own defense. On Friday, a week and a half of testimony concluded in dramatic fashion when Potter took the stand.
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.
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.”
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 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.
Eldridge pushed back during cross-examination. She pointed out that Wright did not have a gun and never threatened officers. Potter, she added, could not have been that concerned about Johnson’s safety, because she never checked on him after the shooting.
Potter is the first female police officer to be found guilty for an on-duty killing since at least 2005, according to Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
Stinson doesn't have records from before that, but it's likely it hasn't happened before in the United States.
Emotions high following verdicts
News of the verdicts brought a range of responses Thursday from elation to relief to sadness.
“Oh my gosh. The moment we heard guilty on manslaughter one, emotions. Every single emotion that you can imagine just running through your body at that moment,” said Katie Bryant, Daunte Wright’s mother.
“I kind of let out a yelp because it was built up in the anticipation of what was to come of while we were waiting the last few days,” she added.
Ellison asked people to reflect on the life of Daunte Wright. "He had his whole life in front of him, and he could have been anyone. All of us miss out on who Daunte could have been.”
“No verdict can bring Daunte Wright back to his loved ones,” Gov. Tim Walz said in a statement. “Minnesota has work to do to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again, and I am committed to continuing that work.”
Correction (Dec. 23, 2021): An earlier version of this story misstated the sentencing guideline for first-degree manslaughter.