“I grabbed the wrong gun,” Potter says, using an expletive. “I killed a boy.”
Potter, 49, is charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter. The shooting happened only a few miles away from the trial of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was charged with the murder of George Floyd. Wright’s death drew a national spotlight that led to several nights of protests, a heavily criticized response from law enforcement, Potter’s resignation, and a huge reshuffling of the city’s leadership.
Nearly eight months after Chauvin was convicted of murder — a rarity for a police officer — a Hennepin County jury will again be asked to determine the fate of a White officer charged with killing a Black man. Potter’s case is expected to renew scrutiny on police use-of-force training and heat-of-the-moment decisions by law enforcement officers.
Potter has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Prosecutors are expected to focus on Potter’s experience and argue that a seasoned veteran of 26 years acted recklessly despite her decades of training. The defense will counter that Potter made a tragic but ultimately innocent mistake by mixing up her weapons. The defense has indicated in pretrial motions that it plans to shift culpability onto Wright for his death: He is seen on body-camera footage trying to escape an officer’s grasp and climb back into his car mid-arrest.
Rachel Moran, an associate law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, who has followed the Potter case, said it is not a simple one.
“The question [of] whether what happened is morally wrong and unjustified is different than: Is the perpetrator criminally responsible?” Moran told The Washington Post.
Potter originally faced only the second-degree manslaughter charge, which for a conviction requires prosecutors to prove that she acted with what Minnesota law describes as “culpable negligence,” which is similar to recklessness, Moran said.
“It means that [Potter’s] act of picking up a gun instead of a Taser and firing it at Daunte Wright is beyond what we can excuse as a mere accident,” Moran said. “It also requires prosecutors to show she consciously disregarded the risk that her action would result in injury or death.”
After Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) took over prosecuting the case, his office in September added first-degree manslaughter, which was less than the murder charge Wright’s family had pushed for.
While the first-degree charge is more serious, Moran said, it makes more sense from a charging perspective.
“It’s premised on the idea that [Potter] was reckless in handling her firearm when she unintentionally killed Daunte Wright,” she said.
Neither charge requires prosecutors to prove that Potter intended to kill Wright.
If Potter is convicted, the charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 15 years and 10 years, respectively, though Moran said that at most Potter would face half that on the more serious charge because of her record and other sentencing factors.
Tasers instead of guns
Wright’s death is the most high-profile gun-for-Taser incident since the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif. After Grant, 22, was pulled from a scuffle on a train, a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer shot Grant in the back as he was pinned down. The officer later said he had meant to fire his Taser.
The officer, Johannes Mehserle, was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter and released after 11 months in prison.
Greg Meyer, a retired captain with the Los Angeles Police Department who now gives consultations on Taser use, said North America has had 18 documented incidents that he calls “weapons confusion tragedies” in the past 20 years.
“These tragic instances are statistically very small — but they are tragic,” Meyer said. “Of the millions of these officers who draw their Tasers on the street, you have these 18 where they draw their weapon.”
There is no national standard for how officers must wear stun guns, but Meyer said departments have shifted in recent years to positioning them on an officer’s nondominant side. At the time of Wright’s shooting, protocol for Brooklyn Center officers such as Potter was to wear theirs on their nondominant side.
“In several of the tragic incidents that occurred, they occurred because the Taser was on the same side as the officer’s handgun,” he said.
Meyer said psychologists have described the shootings as “slip and capture” incidents — “when your mind intends to do one thing, but in the stress and heat of battle, your body slips off that intended track and performs an action you’re more familiar with. Officers are more practiced at drawing firearms,” he said.
Meyer noted that similar incidents tend to involve one gunshot; Potter fired once at Wright, striking him in the chest.
“That fact is very significant because when an officer uses a Taser and it pulls the trigger, you fire one shot and the Taser probes hopefully make contact. Officers when they draw their firearms are trained to fire two or three shots,” he said. “It really lends credence to the idea that these are tragic accidents.”
It’s an argument Potter’s attorneys are expected to impress on the jurors, whose selection begins Tuesday.
“Officer Potter’s regret is abundantly clear on the body camera videos and will be with her the rest of her life,” her defense attorney, Paul Engh, told the Star Tribune. “But hers was an innocent mistake. An accident is not a crime.”
For Wright’s family members and their supporters, Potter’s actions have no excuse. Courteney Ross, Floyd’s partner, taught Wright when he was a student at Edison High School in Minneapolis. During a news conference with Wright’s family Monday, Ross rejected the assertion from Potter — “a senior officer that trained new cadets” — that she mistook her gun for a Taser.
“In all my years working in education, I never mistook a sticker for a stapler,” Ross said. “There is no excuse for her incompetence when it comes to people’s lives that are at stake.”
Ross said she learned of Wright’s death in April as she was leaving a memorial event for families whose loved ones were killed by police. Ross and others supporting Wright said young Black men from the Brooklyn Center community have come forward since the shooting to describe being stopped or “harassed” by Potter.
Wright’s fatal encounter began when Potter and her field trainee, Officer Anthony Luckey, pulled him over for having air fresheners hanging from the car’s rearview mirror and for having expired tabs on the license plate. Luckey moved to arrest Wright after running his information and finding an outstanding arrest warrant for a misdemeanor weapons violation. On the officer’s command, Wright got out of the car and faced the open driver’s side door as Luckey began to handcuff him.
Seconds later, Wright pulled away and tried to sit back in the car, prompting Potter to utter her warning: “I’ll Tase you!”
After Potter fired a round from her Glock 9mm handgun, Wright drove his female passenger a short distance before the car crashed.
Toshira Garraway of the group Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence joined Wright’s mother, Katie, at Monday’s news conference, where they were surrounded by relatives of Philando Castile.
After the event, Garraway told The Post that it was hard not to see Wright’s race as a factor in his death. As with Castile’s and Floyd’s killings, Garraway said, Wright died because Black men are seen as more threatening and less valued by police.
“For some reason, these mistakes aren’t seeming to happen to young White men. But when it comes to our young Black men, these mistakes keep happening,” she said. “And anytime you’re not held accountable for something, you’re going to do it again.”