“This case is about the defendant Kimberly Potter betraying her badge and betraying her oath and betraying her position of public trust,” prosecutor Erin Eldridge said. “And on April 11 of this year, she betrayed a 20-year-old kid. She pulled out her firearm. She pointed it at his chest. She shot and killed Daunte Wright.”
But an attorney for Potter countered that the former officer made an innocent mistake in the heat of a chaotic moment when she feared a fellow officer could be killed as Wright tried to flee arrest.
“He’s about to drive away with a police officer dangling from his car,” defense attorney Paul Engh told jurors. “She made a mistake. This was an accident. She’s a human being. She had to do what she had to do to prevent a death to a fellow officer.”
Engh sought to cast blame back on Wright, telling jurors that Wright would still be alive if he had only complied with police. “All he had to do was surrender. … All he had to do was stop, and he’d still be with us,” Engh said, pounding the lectern for emphasis.
Potter, a former Brooklyn Center, Minn., police officer, is charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of Wright, an unarmed Black man whom prosecutors say had initially been pulled over in the Minneapolis suburb for expired tags and an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror.
When officers discovered Wright had an outstanding arrest warrant for an alleged gross misdemeanor weapons violation, they tried to arrest him. As Wright struggled with an officer who was trying to handcuff him, Potter, who is White, drew her gun and twice threatened to “tase” Wright before firing a single shot, striking him in the chest.
Body-camera video captured the incident, including Potter’s stunned reaction as she realized she had fired her service pistol — a clip of which was played for jurors in the opening minutes of the trial Wednesday.
“Holy s---! I just shot him,” Potter yelled to another officer, according to the video. “I grabbed the wrong f------ gun. I shot him.”
“I’m going to go to prison,” Potter said a minute later, according to prosecutors. “I killed a boy.”
Wright — who cried out, “Ah, he shot me!” as the bullet pierced his chest — drove his vehicle a short distance down the street and crashed. Responding medical personnel were unable to revive him and he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Squad video played for jurors Wednesday showed Potter collapsing on a nearby sidewalk in shock after the shooting, shrieking and sobbing into her hands.
Officer Anthony Luckey, who was paired with Potter that day, testified that he had been trying to handcuff Wright and pull him from the car when he heard Potter cry out “Taser! Taser!”
“That’s when I just heard a bang,” Luckey testified, adding that he saw a flash and was hit by a projectile in the face.
Luckey said Potter cried out that she had shot Wright and “became hysterical.”
Prosecutors in their opening told jurors that Potter “didn’t do anything to help” Wright.
“She didn’t call for assistance. She didn’t render aid. She didn’t communicate any information about what had happened to her fellow officers who were responding,” Eldridge said, pointing to a “small army” of officers who responded to Wright’s crashed car with guns drawn nearly 10 minutes later, delaying medical aid to him.
But Wright’s attorneys said the situation was more complicated than prosecutors have alleged. Engh said what began as a traffic stop for an air freshener and expired tags led to the discovery that Wright didn’t have a license and was driving a car without proper insurance. He said Wright also had an outstanding warrant on a gun charge, leading Potter and the other officers to suspect he might be armed.
Engh suggested that Potter’s handling of the stop was “routine” police work and that she and the other officers were required to arrest Wright on the gun warrant. He urged jurors to consider Potter’s statements in the body-camera video of the killing — including her cries of “Taser! Taser!” — as evidence that she thought she had drawn the correct weapon.
“An error can happen,” Engh told jurors. “We are in the human business. Police officers are human beings. And that’s what occurred.”
Potter’s attorneys have listed four possible defenses they plan to use in the trial: arguing that the shooting was an “innocent mistake,” that it was an “innocent accident,” that “her perceived use of a Taser was reasonable” and that there was a “lack of causation.” On Wednesday, Engh said they also would introduce testimony suggesting Potter had the right to fire the weapon, even if that wasn’t what she intended to do.
During jury selection last week, Potter’s attorneys indicated that she would testify in her own defense — a decision Potter later affirmed to Hennepin County District Court Judge Regina Chu, who is presiding over the trial.
Prosecutors opened their case with emotional testimony from Wright’s mother, Katie Bryant, who recounted how she and her husband had gifted Wright a Buick two weeks before his death. The car was still registered to Wright’s older brother and was not yet covered under the family insurance. Bryant had given her son $50 for a carwash, but he called her a short time later saying he had been pulled over because of an air freshener hanging from his mirror.
Wright sounded “nervous, scared,” Bryant testified, and she asked him to hand the phone to the officer so she could explain the insurance situation. But when the officer returned to the car, she heard him ask Wright to put the phone down and step out of the vehicle, followed by sounds of a scuffle. The phone disconnected.
Bryant testified that she tried calling back repeatedly, but there was no answer. She then called via FaceTime and a young woman answered the phone. “She was screaming, and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she said, ‘They shot him,’ ” Bryant said. “She faced the phone toward the driver’s seat and my son was laying there. He was unresponsive, and he looked dead.”
Bryant testified that she rushed to the scene. Jurors saw body-camera video of her interactions with officers as she frantically tried to get to her son’s crashed car. From a distance, she saw a body covered with a sheet.
“I didn’t want to believe that it was my son laying there on the ground, but I could tell it was him because of his tennis shoes,” Bryant said tearfully. Bryant said she began biting the inside of her cheeks — so much that it left scars — in hopes of waking herself up from a “bad dream.”
“It was the worst day of my life,” Bryant said, struggling to maintain her composure.
Potter did not visibly react to Bryant’s testimony.
Potter, 49, a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center force, resigned after the April 11 incident, which took place in the final weeks of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial in the death of George Floyd. Wright’s killing sparked fresh unrest across the Twin Cities, including clashes between demonstrators and police in a region still on edge after Floyd’s murder.
The jury of seven men and seven women picked to hear the case is predominantly White. The 12 who will deliberate if no alternates are needed include six White men, three White women, two Asian women and one Black woman. The two alternates are a White man and a White woman. The jurors range in age from their 20s to their 70s.
Potter was initially charged with second-degree manslaughter. But in September, prosecutors added a charge of first-degree manslaughter alleging Potter had recklessly handled a gun when death was reasonably foreseeable. The amended complaint said Potter had received annual training in the use of Tasers and firearms during her quarter-century as an officer — including a four-hour Taser training course on March 2 — a little over a month before Wright’s killing.
Neither charge suggests intent, and the jury does not have to find that Potter intended to kill Wright.
“No one will say that she wanted him dead. No one will say that she wanted this to happen. And no one is even saying that she meant to shoot him with her gun,” Eldridge told jurors. “But the evidence will show that’s what she did.”
If convicted, Potter faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Prosecutors have asked the judge for an “upward sentencing departure” or a tougher sentence if she is convicted, saying her “conduct caused a greater-than-normal danger to the safety of other people,” pointing to Wright’s female passenger in the car and the “close proximity” of the two other officers at the scene.
Potter’s attorneys have sought to portray Wright as a dangerous criminal who was trying to flee from police. But Chu rejected a defense request to admit a photo of Wright pointing a handgun at a mirror as evidence — a photo that Potter’s attorneys said they wanted to use to counter testimony from Wright’s father about his son’s life.
Testimony resumes Thursday.