The former suburban Minneapolis police officer convicted of manslaughter for fatally shooting Daunte Wright during a traffic stop last April was sentenced to two years in prison in a Hennepin County courtroom Friday.
“This case is highly unusual,” Hennepin County Judge Regina M. Chu said Friday. She called it “one of the saddest cases I’ve had in my 20 years on the bench.”
Under state guidelines, Potter is sentenced for only the most serious conviction of first-degree manslaughter; the recommended range is more than six years to roughly 8½ years. Those with felony sentences in Minnesota are eligible for release after serving two-thirds of their mandatory sentence. Potter could be released in 16 months and will also receive credit for 58 days already served in custody.
The judge said that while Potter made a “tragic mistake … and ended up killing a young man,” her actions ultimately lacked the aggravating factors that would have justified a longer sentence.
Chu acknowledged her decision would be a disappointment to some and insisted that it was not meant to diminish what happened to Wright.
“His life mattered,” Chu said.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) in a statement called the day a somber one in which there were no winners. Ellison, whose office handled the special prosecution of the case, said he accepted the judge’s decision and urged others to do the same.
“I don’t ask you to agree with her decision, which takes nothing away from the truth of the jury’s verdict,” Ellison said. “I know it is hurtful to loved ones of Daunte Wright. I ask that we remember the beauty of Daunte Wright, to keep his memory in our hearts, and to know that no number of years in prison could ever capture the wonder of this young man’s life.”
Outside the courthouse shortly after the hearing adjourned, Wright’s distraught family members said they felt “betrayed” by the justice system.
“Kim Potter murdered my son. He died April 11,” said Katie Wright, Daunte’s mother. “Today, the justice system murdered him all over again.”
In court Friday, the family had pleaded for the judge to hand Potter the highest penalty. Family members seized on Potter’s trusted position as an officer, and they contrasted her ability to rejoin her family and watch her sons grow to their “life sentence” without Wright.
Katie Wright didn’t mention Potter by name during her victim impact statement, instead calling her “the defendant.”
“I will never be able to forgive you for what you’ve stolen from us,” Wright said. “A police officer who’s supposed to serve and protect took so much away from us.”
Wright criticized Potter for failing to render aid immediately after the shooting. “Please keep in mind the impact this has caused her family and herself is just a small storm that’s going to pass, compared to our life sentence without Daunte,” she said.
Prosecutor Matthew Frank noted that remorse alone is not enough for Potter to deserve a more lenient sentence.
“We should expect defendants to have remorse; we should expect defendants to have remorse for more than what happens to them,” he said.
Wright’s family and supporters have repeatedly invoked Potter’s smiling booking photo taken immediately after her conviction as evidence of callousness and lack of remorse.
Paul Engh, an attorney for Potter, sought to get ahead of that criticism Friday, insisting that she was asked to smile before her picture was taken and that it wasn’t meant to convey disrespect.
Engh said prosecutors sought too high a sentence for Potter considering her first-time offender and said that she is already being punished by never being able to work as a police officer or own a gun again. He urged the judge to weigh what he called a “virtuous” life Potter had lived heavily against “a five-second mistake.”
To demonstrate the strong support Engh said Potter has from the community, he held up a box of cards she received in jail and said there were two more like it.
Potter finally addressed the court and sobbed through her brief remarks. She apologized to Wright’s family and said she hopes the family may one day forgive her.
“To the family of Daunte Wright, I am so sorry that I brought the death of your family,” Potter wailed. “Katie, I understand a mother’s love, and I am sorry I broke your heart.”
Acknowledging Katie Wright’s remark that Potter never once looked at the family during the trial, Potter said, “I didn’t believe I had a right to.”
Wright’s death drew an immediate national outcry and came as the trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis police officer later convicted of murdering George Floyd, was unfolding 10 miles away.
Nekima Levy Armstrong, a Minneapolis civil rights attorney and advocate for the Wright family, said Potter’s sentence will bring some level of closure.
“A strong sentence would be modicum of justice, but, of course, true justice is Daunte Wright being able to be here with his family,” Armstrong told The Washington Post on Thursday.
In court Friday, Frank, the prosecutor in the case, countered earlier reports that the state was seeking a longer sentence and clarified that it filed notice with the court to find “aggravating” factors that Potter’s crime was egregious.
In arguing for a lighter sentence of probation, Potter’s lawyers said Wright was the “aggressor.” In court filings, the defense rejected any prison term for Potter and insisted she would be a “walking target” in prison.
“She represents authority, and police authority and investigation are what result in convictions and incarceration,” the defense wrote.
Armstrong, the civil rights attorney, said that while a light sentence for Potter would be painful, it cannot diminish the significance of Potter’s conviction — a rarity for police officers.
“I always think, as someone who grew up in L.A., how different people would feel if the officers who beat Rodney King were found criminally liable in a court of law,” she said. “It was a such a slap in the face to people who watched that video that they still talk about it today.”
Video of Wright’s fatal shooting prompted anguish and outrage when it was released soon after the incident.
“I’ll Tase you!” Potter says in body-camera footage from the April 11 traffic stop. “Taser! Taser! Taser!” Seconds later, she continues: “Holy s---, I shot him.”
“I grabbed the wrong gun,” Potter says, using an expletive. “I killed a boy.”
Wright had initially been pulled over for having expired tags and an air freshener dangling in his rearview mirror, which is illegal in Minnesota. When officers ran Wright’s identification and discovered an outstanding arrest warrant for a gross misdemeanor weapons violation, they moved to arrest him. Wright struggled to get away from an officer trying to handcuff him, drawing Potter’s fire from outside the car.
In the video, Wright's car is seen pulling away only to crash a short time later.
Alayna Albrecht-Payton was in the passenger seat of the car during the incident and recounted in emotional testimony the seconds after the shooting, trying to stop the bleeding in Wright’s chest and screaming that he was shot to Wright’s mother over the phone.
After the video’s release last April, protesters gathered for several days in Brooklyn Center, only to be met with an aggressive, heavily criticized response from law enforcement. The chaotic week that followed also led to the resignation of both Potter and the police chief and a reshuffling of city leadership.
Even after Potter’s sentencing, advocates for Wright’s family are fighting to ensure she cannot collect on the taxpayer-funded portion of her police pension, which Potter preserved by resigning after the shooting rather than face termination.
“Even if she goes to prison, she’s going to be there, not paying rent, and she’s going to be receiving money — getting a pension that goes right into her pocket,” said Johnathon McClellan, an attorney who leads the Minnesota Justice Coalition and is close to the Wright family.
McClellan’s group has backed a bill introduced in the state legislature last month that would terminate the taxpayer-funded portion of pensions for law enforcement convicted of felonies.