Jurors heard closing arguments and began deliberating Monday in the manslaughter trial of former Minnesota police officer Kim Potter, who fatally shot Daunte Wright while yelling “Taser” this year.
Prosecutor Erin Eldridge described Potter as a 26-year veteran police officer who knew the risks of drawing and firing her weapon when she shot the 20-year-old Black motorist in April in a traffic stop-turned-arrest in Brooklyn Center, a Minneapolis suburb.
“This case is about the defendant’s rash and reckless conduct,” Eldridge said. “It’s not about her being a nice person or a good person. Even nice people have to obey the law.”
Defense attorney Earl Gray argued that Wright’s refusal to comply with police was a “superseding cause” of his own death and that Potter – a “peaceful” and “law-abiding” officer – was compelled by law to stop Wright from fleeing arrest.
“Daunte Wright caused his own death, unfortunately, but those are the cold, hard facts,” he said.
After closing arguments, 12 jurors began deliberating. The mostly white jury began deliberating shortly before 1 p.m. and quit for the day around 6 p.m. without reaching a verdict. They will be sequestered until they finish.
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Potter, 49, is charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter. Prosecutors said she recklessly handled her firearm and caused Wright’s death through her “culpable negligence” – a conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk.
“Accidents can still be crimes if they occur as the result of recklessness or culpable negligence,” Eldridge said.
Defense attorneys, who called multiple witnesses over two days, said Potter confused her firearm for a Taser but was justified in using deadly force to prevent Wright from injuring another officer.
“How can you recklessly, consciously handle a gun if you don’t know that you have it?” Gray said. “My gosh, a mistake is not a crime.”
On rebuttal, prosecutor Matthew Frank answered Gray’s query and said a “mistake” is not a defense.
“How can you recklessly handle a firearm? That’s exactly the point. She pulled her handgun instead of a Taser when that was her apparent intention,” he said.
Frank said the notion that Wright caused his own death was “stunning.”
“If we accept that argument – that he caused his own death – we have to accept that anytime a person does not meticulously follow the commands of a police officer, they can be shot to death and there can be no consequences,” Frank said.
After Potter shot Wright inside a vehicle, he drove down the street and crashed into an oncoming car. Potter, who is white, said she “grabbed the wrong” gun, according to police bodycam videos.
Potter cried on the witness stand Friday as she recounted the “chaotic” moment she shot Wright. “I didn’t want to hurt anybody,” she said.
Over six days, prosecutors called witnesses, played dozens of videos and showed jurors training slideshows in a bid to prove Potter was “no rookie” who was well aware of the risks associated with her weapons, including the risks of shooting a driver of a vehicle, of collateral injuries and of confusing firearms and Tasers.
“This was a colossal screw-up – a blunder of epic proportions. It was precisely the thing she had been warned about for years, and she was trained to prevent it,” Eldridge said.
Eldridge argued “an ordinary and prudent person would not have drawn a weapon, held it for more than five, five to six seconds, aimed it and pulled the trigger, all without recognizing or confirming what was in their hand.”
“Carrying a badge and a gun is not a license to kill,” she said.
Eldridge disputed the defense’s claim that Potter was attempting to prevent injury to another officer who had leaned into Wright’s vehicle and was in danger of being dragged as Wright hit the gas.
“No one was dragged. No one was almost dragged,” Eldridge said.
The first-degree charge carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and/or a $30,000 fine, and the second-degree charge has a maximum sentence of 10 years and/or a $20,000 fine.
Though Minnesota judges typically follow sentencing guidelines that call for less time, prosecutors said there are aggravating factors in the case that warrant a tougher sentence. Prosecutors said Potter abused her position of authority and caused a “greater than normal danger” to the safety of Wright’s passenger, other officers and civilians on the street. The judge will rule on the aggravating factors.
The jury considering the charges is 75% white. About 68% of Hennepin County residents are non-Hispanic white, nearly 14% are Black, 7.5% are Asian, and 7% are Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The jury has nine white panelists.
This month, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said he was prepared to ask the National Guard to assist law enforcement during the trial “out of an abundance of caution.” The Brooklyn Center School Board extended winter break in anticipation of the conclusion of the trial, according to school officials.
Contributing: The Associated Press