The conviction of former Minnesota police officer Kim Potter in the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright would not have happened just a few years ago, according to legal experts surprised by the jury’s verdict.
Potter, who is White, was found guilty Thursday of first- and second-degree manslaughter in her killing of Wright when she said she mistakenly shot the 20-year-old Black man with a gun instead of a Taser. Potter, 49, had pleaded not guilty to the charges.
During a police stop on April 11 in Brooklyn Center, near Minneapolis, officers learned Wright had an outstanding warrant and tried to arrest him. As Wright tried to flee the scene, Potter yelled, “Taser, Taser” and instead pulled out her gun and fatally shot him.
The case unfolded at a time when the American justice system is under scrutiny over the legal disciplinary measures police officers face when they use force –whether deadly or otherwise — against people of color, particularly Black Americans.
The 12-member jury in Potter’s case deliberated for about 27 hours since Monday before reaching the guilty verdict — which surprised two legal experts who said they either expected a hung jury or mistrial altogether.
“Three to five years ago, this would be a full acquittal, not even a concern over a mistrial. So the fact that we are now seeing more accountability for officers — the idea they are not above the law, that if they do the crime, they do the time,” criminal defense attorney Sara Azari said Thursday after the conviction. “It’s definitely not systemic change, but it is definitely a change in trend. And this is not something that would have happened earlier.”
Potter’s defense argued at trial that her actions did not rise to the level of a crime and that the use of the Taser was reasonable. Defense attorney Earl Gray argued that Potter had the right to use deadly force — claiming her actions shouldn’t be considered reckless because she “didn’t know she had a gun.”
Meanwhile, the prosecution argued Potter’s fatal error was due to recklessness and negligence. Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Erin Eldridge told jurors in closing arguments that there would be no case if Potter “followed her training … paid attention … and considered the risk,” before shooting Wright.
“Accidents can still be crimes if they occur because of recklessness or culpable negligence. … It’s not a defense to the crimes charged,” the prosecutor said.
“I think the prosecution did a good job of separating out her behavior, her remorse, and saying we have to hold people responsible when they do something tragic when it’s so unbelievably negligent,” CNN legal analyst and defense attorney Mark O’Mara said.
O’Mara echoed Azari’s take on the conviction, saying in part, “We are finally in the days of Floyd,” referring to George Floyd, a Black man whose murder by a White Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 sparked national and global protests against police brutality.
“We are without question holding cops more responsible for their actions. They do not get a free pass,” O’Mara told CNN’s John Berman on Thursday, adding that Potter’s reaction seems to stem from “implicit bias.”
“We now need to truly train cops and law enforcement how to rethink their perspective of young Black males,” he said.
“Not an easy mistake to make”
The jury — which was deadlocked at times during trial — had access to a gun and Taser to compare their differences, and O’Mara and Azari both agree that strategy helped the prosecution land the conviction.
“I do believe that the ability to compare the weapons and just see how grossly negligent she (Potter) was or criminally negligent she was given the vast differences between these two weapons,” Azari said. “It’s not every day an officer with 26 years of training and certification mistakes a gun for a Taser.”
Confusing the two weapons “was not an easy mistake to make,” O’Mara noted.
“It is so negligent; it is so unusual to grab a Taser and think it’s a gun that that act itself evidences recklessness,” O’Mara explained.
Special agent Sam McGinnis of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension testified there were multiple differences between department-issued stun guns and Potter’s gun.
McGinnis, a state investigative agent responsible for reviewing police shootings, said his analysis of the two weapons concluded marked differences in weight. Potter’s Glock handgun weighed 2.11 pounds, he testified, compared to her Taser which weighed less than a pound.
The triggers on both weapons also have different shapes, McGinnis said, as the gun’s is curved while the Taser’s is flat.
The weapons were on opposite sides of Potter’s body and accessed differently, according to McGinnis. The gun’s holster had a snap retention system to secure the gun in place while the Taser’s holster required Potter to push a lever.
Family, community celebrate verdict
Following the highly anticipated verdict, some in the community as well as Wright’s family members shared their emotional sentiments.
Wright’s parents, Aubrey Wright and Katie Bryant, expressed sighs and cries, according to reporters.
“The moment we heard guilty on manslaughter one — emotions, every single emotion that you can imagine, just running through your body. I kind of let out a yelp because it was built up in the anticipation,” Bryant told reporters.
“This is just a step forward in the bigger issue with policing and hopefully there has to be no more Dauntes. No more Dauntes and so many more names we chant in our streets,” she later told CNN.
Moments after the guilty verdict, people outside the courthouse in Minneapolis held portraits of Wright as well as Black Lives Matter signs, celebrating the jury’s decision.
One woman told CNN’s Omar Jimenez the verdict is “proof that the world can change and do better for us Black people, us minorities in this world.”
“That’s all I want. I have a Black son growing up in this world. You can imagine my fear for him,” she said. “We just need change, that’s all. It should have never happened. We fought for this.”
Potter’s conviction of the manslaughter charges brings “a degree of accountability” for Wright’s killing, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said Thursday. He also addressed law enforcement officers, saying being “held accountable … does not diminish you.”
“Accountability is not justice. Justice is restoration. Justice would be restoring Daunte to life and making the Wright family whole again. Justice is beyond the reach that we have in this life for Daunte. But accountability is an important step, a critical, necessary step on the road to justice for us all,” Ellison said.
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