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Kimberly Potter found guilty of manslaughter in fatal shooting of Daunte Wright

The former suburban Minneapolis police officer could face 11 years or more in prison.

MINNEAPOLIS — A jury on Thursday convicted a former suburban Minneapolis police officer of first- and second-degree manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright during an April traffic stop.

The mostly White jury deliberated for about 27 hours before finding Kimberly Potter, a former Brooklyn Center, Minn., police officer, guilty of all charges in the killing of Wright, an unarmed 20-year-old Black man.

Potter’s conviction — which under sentencing guidelines could yield a prison term of 11 years or more — capped a year of racially charged trials that gained national prominence, including the November conviction of three men in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wis.

Wright’s death made headlines during the final days of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd. Potter, who is White, has claimed she mistook her gun for her Taser.

As the verdicts were read, Potter, who sobbed on the stand as she testified in her own defense last week, stood and offered no visible reaction. Her attorneys squeezed her shoulders and whispered into her ear. At the back of the courtroom, Wright’s parents, Katie Bryant and Arbuey Wright, exhaled loudly and began to cry.

Afterward, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D), whose office led the prosecution, described the verdict as a measure of “accountability” but said it was not “justice.”

“Justice would be restoring Daunte to life and making the Wright family whole again,” Ellison said at a somber post-verdict news conference where he stood with members of the prosecution team and with Wright’s parents.

Ellison urged people to “reflect upon” Wright’s life “and who he could have been had he had a chance to grow up.”

“He could have become anyone,” he said. “All of us miss out on who Daunte could have been.”

Wright’s parents hugged Ellison and pointedly declined to comment on Potter. Bryant said the verdicts triggered “every single emotion that you could imagine.” She praised activists who marched in the aftermath of her son’s killing to demand justice.

“Today we have gotten accountability, and that’s what we’ve been asking for from the beginning,” Bryant said. “We couldn’t have done it without you.”

Potter’s attorneys did not publicly comment after the verdict.

Former Minnesota police officer Kim Potter was found guilty of manslaughter on Dec. 23 in the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright. (Video: Reuters)

Thursday’s decision was the second high-profile conviction of a police officer won by Ellison’s team this year, following the conviction of Chauvin in Floyd’s death in April. He said police officers shouldn’t be “discouraged” by the convictions.

“When a member of your profession is held accountable, it doesn’t diminish you,” Ellison said. “In fact, it shows the world that those of you who enforce the law are also willing to live by it. That’s a good thing. It restores trust, faith, and hope.”

Prosecutors have filed a motion asking for a tougher sentence than the 11 years in prison suggested under state sentencing guidelines, citing aggravating factors including that Potter’s actions endangered others at the scene. Potter last week asked for a separate hearing on those issues and requested that her sentence be determined by the judge, who has discretion to go above or below the guidelines, not the jury. A sentencing hearing was scheduled for Feb. 18.

After Thursday’s verdict, the judge ordered Potter held without bail, despite protests from her attorneys who argued she was not a “risk” to society. But Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu, who oversaw the case, pointed to the seriousness of the conviction and said she could not give Potter special treatment.

“I cannot treat this case any differently than any other case,” Chu said.

As Potter was handcuffed and led away, her husband, Jeff, who was seated in the courtroom with her two sons, shouted that he loved her. “I love you, too,” the former officer replied.

Potter was arrested in April in the killing of Wright, who had initially been pulled over because of expired tags and an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror, which is illegal in Minnesota.

When officers discovered Wright had an outstanding arrest warrant for a gross misdemeanor weapons violation, they tried to arrest him. Wright struggled with another officer at the scene who was trying to handcuff him, and Potter drew her gun and twice threatened to “Tase” Wright before firing a single shot, striking him in the chest.

Body-camera video captured the chaotic event, including Potter’s stunned reaction as she realized she had fired her handgun. “Holy s--t! I just shot him,” Potter yelled at another officer, according to video played repeatedly in court. “I grabbed the wrong f-----g gun. I shot him.”

“I’m going to go to prison,” Potter said a minute later, according to the video. “I killed a boy.”

The verdict came just days after closing arguments in the case in which Potter’s defense attorney urged the jury to find his client not guilty of the charges, claiming that “she made a mistake” when she grabbed the wrong weapon in the heat of a chaotic moment.

“You can be trained forever, and under exigent circumstances, you can end up making a mistake,” Earl Gray, Potter’s defense attorney, told the jury. “Everybody makes mistakes. Nobody’s perfect, ladies and gentlemen. And this lady here made a mistake. And, my gosh, a mistake is not a crime.”

Gray accused Wright of sparking the events that led to his fatal shooting, arguing that if he had simply complied with officers’ commands, he’d still be alive. “Daunte Wright caused his own death, unfortunately,” Gray said. “That’s the cold hard facts, the evidence.”

But prosecutor Matthew Frank told the jury that there is “no mistake defense.”

“The judge will not give you an instruction that says a person is not guilty if they commit a mistake. That’s not the law, no matter how often the defense says ‘mistake,’” Frank said.

Jury finishes first day of deliberations in trial of officer who fatally shot Daunte Wright

The jury of six men and six women weighed the case for about 27 hours over four days beginning Monday afternoon. The 12 who deliberated included six White men, three White women, two Asian women and one Black woman.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the jury hinted it might be deadlocked, returning to the courtroom to ask Chu to give them instructions on how to proceed if they could not reach a unanimous verdict. The judge urged them to find agreement and sent them back into deliberations.

According to the timestamps on the verdict forms read in court by Chu, the jury reached a unanimous guilty verdict on the second-degree manslaughter charge at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. The panel reached a verdict on the first-degree manslaughter charge at 11:40 a.m. Thursday. One juror was observed crying as the verdicts were read on Thursday.

The verdicts come after eight days of testimony from more than two dozen witnesses, including several police officers, use-of-force experts and a psychologist who has studied cases of weapons confusion among law enforcement officers.

Prosecutors argued that Potter, a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center force, not only violated her decades of training but was reckless in her decision to use a weapon at the scene at all — pointing to training that warns of the dangers of firing either a Taser or a gun at someone behind the wheel of a car.

But Potter’s attorneys repeatedly sought to undermine that argument, telling the jury that she made an “action error” during a chaotic moment when she feared for the safety of another officer. They solicited testimony from numerous police officers, including those testifying for the prosecution, who said they believed Potter had the right to fire a Taser or a gun at the scene under department policy.

The defense rested its case Friday with testimony from Potter, who cried on the stand as she recalled a “chaotic” scene leading up to her shooting Wright. The former officer told the jury she recalled seeing “fear” in the eyes of an officer on the opposite side of the car when Wright jumped into his vehicle as officers tried to arrest him.

Kimberly Potter testifies of ‘chaotic’ scene before she fatally shot Daunte Wright

But the prosecution challenged Potter’s claim that she grabbed her weapon because she was trying to protect a fellow officer from being dragged by Wright’s vehicle. They pointed to body-camera video they said raised doubts about whether she could even see the officer on the other side of the car as well as her statements at the scene, in which she said nothing about fearing for the safety of other officers.

Potter claimed she did not realize she had fired her gun instead of her Taser until she heard Wright cry out that she had shot him. “We were trying to keep him from driving away … and it just went chaotic,” Potter told the jury in her first public recounting of the deadly incident. “I remember yelling ‘Taser, Taser, Taser!’ and nothing happened. And then he told me I shot him.”

The former officer began crying and shaking as a prosecutor pressed her on the events of that day, pointing out she had not offered medical assistance to Wright or informed responding officers that she had shot the man.

“I’m sorry it happened. I’m so sorry,” Potter cried out, sobbing into her hands. “I didn’t mean to hurt anybody.”

Testifying in her own defense on Dec. 17, former Brooklyn Center, Minn., police officer Kim Potter described the context of the April 2021 fatal shooting. (Video: AP/Court TV)

Wright — who had 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.

Despite prosecution objections, the jury heard testimony from Potter’s former colleagues that they believed, on the basis of their training and knowledge of department policy, that Potter had the right to use deadly force at the scene if she believed another officer was in danger.

“I saw no violation … of policy, procedure or law,” Timothy Gannon, the former Brooklyn Center police chief who resigned in the aftermath of the Wright shooting, testified last week.

Although prosecutors pointedly told the jury they were not alleging that Potter intentionally killed Wright, they argued that her recklessness led to the fatal shooting and endangered others at the scene, including her fellow officers and the female passenger in Wright’s car who sobbed on the stand as she recalled the shooting and spoke of her continuing trauma.

Jurors hear testimony from passenger in Daunte Wright’s car during trial of former officer Kimberly Potter

Bryant testified that she had rushed to the scene and saw her son’s crashed car and a body covered by 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, crying. She told the jury that she began biting the inside of her cheeks — so hard that it left lasting scars — in hopes of waking herself up from a “bad dream.”

“It was the worst day of my life,” Bryant told the jury.

Potter, 49, resigned after the April 11 shooting, which took place in the final weeks of 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 deeply on edge after Floyd’s killing.

Dozens of demonstrators gathered outside the courthouse Thursday as the verdicts were read, many carrying placards printed with an image of Wright’s face. They erupted in shouts of jubilation and relief as Chu read out each of the “guilty” verdicts.

On Dec. 23, a crowd erupted in cheers outside the courthouse after Kim Potter was convicted of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright. (Video: Storyful)

Ellison declined to specifically comment on the prison term the prosecution would seek, saying only it wanted “a fair one.” He said his “thoughts” were also with Potter, telling reporters that he believes she felt remorse for Wright’s killing but that her feelings could not reverse what she had done.

“She has gone from being an esteemed member of the community and honored member of a noble profession to being convicted of a serious crime,” Ellison said. “I don’t wish that on anyone.”