Both sides in the manslaughter trial of former police officer Kim Potter agreed during opening statements that Potter meant to draw her Taser, rather than her handgun, during the traffic stop last April in suburban Minneapolis where she shot and killed a 20-year-old named Daunte Wright.
Instead, prosecutors and defense lawyers on Wednesday walked the jury through Potter’s career and training, the differences between a gun and a Taser, Wright’s behavior and every possible detail of the traffic stop itself — all in an attempt to answer a different question: whether her mistake rose to the level of criminal recklessness.
“It’s about the reckless handling of a firearm, and it’s about the disregard of known risks. It’s about an officer who knew she could kill someone if she got it wrong but failed to make sure she got it right,” said Erin Eldridge, an assistant attorney general for the state of Minnesota.
But attorneys representing Potter said that her use of a weapon was warranted — especially because a fellow officer, Sgt. Mychal Johnson, was leaning into Wright’s car through the passenger door in an attempt to disable the vehicle.
Lawyers said Potter was worried that if Wright chose to speed away, Johnson could be killed.
So she decided to draw her Taser — but mistakenly and unconsciously drew her gun instead, defense attorney Paul Engh said, “much to her everlasting and unending regret.”
“She made a mistake. This was an accident. She’s a human being. But she had to do what she had to do to prevent a death to a fellow officer,” said Engh.
Wright, who was Black, died on the scene. Potter, who is white, resigned from the Brooklyn Center, Minn., police force in the days following the shooting.
She faces two counts, first-degree manslaughter and second-degree manslaughter. She has pleaded not guilty to both charges.
Potter is expected to testify in her own defense. Other witnesses will include the other people present during the shooting — two police officers and Alayna Albrecht-Payton, Wright’s girlfriend, who was sitting in the passenger seat — along with a medical examiner and a variety of use-of-force experts.
Never-before-seen squad car footage shows the immediate aftermath of the shooting
Central to both cases will be footage recorded from Potter’s own body-worn camera, which captured the entire incident between Potter and Wright. Authorities released that recording in the days after the shooting on April 11.
On Wednesday, prosecutors also showed a new angle of the incident recorded from Potter’s squad car, which had never before been made public. The squad car was stopped directly behind Wright’s Buick sedan.
The entire sequence of events lasted about one minute, starting when officers stepped out of the squad car to arrest Wright to the moment Potter shot him and his car sped away.
The most striking sequence of the new angle depicts the seconds immediately following the shooting. As Wright’s car sped away, the video shows that Potter froze, gasped and said, “I just shot him.” Then, she put her head in her hands and ran to sit on the curb, saying, “I shot him, oh my God, oh my God.”
Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images
Prosecutors said the footage shows that Potter knew she “had messed up big time.”
“There is no do-over when you walk the streets with a loaded firearm, when you’re entrusted with a deadly weapon as part of your job. There’s no do-over when you take a young man’s life,” said Eldridge.
But Potter’s attorney said that it is clear from video evidence that Potter did not know she was holding her firearm. He suggested that they will argue she is not guilty of manslaughter because she was not consciously aware of the danger she posed.
“The key issue in the case for you is: What was her conscious thought as to whether or not she had a Taser or not, or whether or not she had a gun?” Engh told the jury.
Defense lawyers said the arrest and use of force were warranted
On April 11, Potter was training a new hire named Anthony Luckey. The pair initiated the traffic stop over an air freshener dangling from Wright’s rearview mirror and expired tabs on his license plate.
Eldridge emphasized that Wright was initially cooperative and forthright about his personal information, including that he did not have a current license or insurance. He was unarmed and “scared,” she said.
But upon running Wright’s information, Potter and Luckey discovered a warrant for his arrest stemming from a gun charge — causing the officers to fear that Wright may have had a gun in the car, Engh said.
As Luckey and Potter prepared to arrest Wright, Johnson, an officer who specializes in SWAT actions, joined the pair. The three approached Wright’s car to make the arrest, with Luckey and Potter on the driver’s side and Johnson on the passenger side.
When Luckey attempted to handcuff Wright, Wright pulled away and sat back down into the driver’s seat. “He knows exactly what he wants to do, and that is escape,” Engh said.
At that point, Johnson opened the passenger door and leaned into the car to hold the gear shift to prevent Wright from driving away, Engh said.
“She sees Johnson, whose location is key to the case, because if this guy drives away, he’s dead,” Engh said.
About five seconds elapsed between the moment Potter drew her gun and when she fired it.
Prosecutors said those five seconds should have been long enough for Potter to realize she was holding her handgun.
But defense lawyers said it was Wright who should have acted differently in that five-second window. “She said, ‘I’ll tase you, I’ll tase you.’ The language was direct. It was clear. It was unmistakable. And all Mr. Wright had to do was stop,” Engh said.
Prosecutors focused on Potter’s weapons training, including the differences between a Taser and a handgun
In 26 years on the police force, Potter had undergone numerous weapons trainings, prosecutors said, including annual recertifications on the use of her firearm and Taser. Her most recent Taser certification was completed on March 2, just over a month before the shooting.
“This case is about an officer who knew not to get it dead wrong, but she failed to get it right,” Eldridge said.
Potter was carrying a 9 mm Glock pistol that day, holstered on her right hip. Her Taser, a Taser 7 model, was holstered on her left side with its grip pointing backward, meant to be drawn with her nondominant left hand.
Eldridge ticked through the differences between the Taser and the handgun: The Taser was made of bright yellow plastic and weighed less than half of the fully loaded Glock.
When the Taser’s safety is turned off, she said, a pair of lasers switch on to show where the weapon is pointed, and a small display facing the holder lights up.
But none of those things happened because Potter had drawn her handgun, Eldridge said.
“She had been trained year after year after year to prevent this kind of thing from happening, but she did it anyway,” she said.
What else to know about the trial
Testimony in the trial began Wednesday and is expected to last into next week. During jury selection, jurors were told that the trial was likely to be done by Christmas Eve.
The case against Potter is being handled by the Minnesota attorney general’s office. Eldridge, the prosecutor who gave Wednesday’s opening statement, is a former federal prosecutor who also took part in the state’s case against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who was convicted of murder this year.
Potter’s legal team is led by Earl Gray, a prominent Minneapolis defense attorney who often represents police officers.
Judge Regina Chu was first appointed to the bench in 2002. Since then, she has been reelected three times, most recently in 2016.
Nine of the 12 jurors are white, a proportion roughly in line with the population of Hennepin County. But the jury is notably less diverse than the population of Brooklyn Center, the state’s most diverse city, where only 38% of residents identify as non-Hispanic white.