Brooklyn Center police shooting case goes to jury

Kimberly Potter’s attorney say it was a ‘mistake’

By: - December 20, 2021 3:40 pm

Former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter testifies in her manslaughter trial on Dec. 17, 2021, for killing 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic traffic stop.

Kimberly Potter’s two sons will be home for the holidays, but a prosecutor pointed out in closing arguments Monday that Daunte Wrights’ parents won’t get to see him on Christmas, because Potter shot and killed him on April 11.

With a photo of Wright holding his 1-year-old son and another with his father displayed on a screen in front of her, Assistant Attorney General for Minnesota Erin Eldridge summarized the prosecution’s case Monday for why Potter should be convicted of first- and second-degree manslaughter. The defense then laid out its counter-argument, and the case went to a jury of 12 for deliberation in the afternoon.

To convict Potter of first-degree manslaughter, prosecutors must prove beyond reasonable doubt that she caused Wright’s death while recklessly, consciously handling her firearm. On the second-degree manslaughter charge, prosecutors must prove she caused Wright’s death through culpable negligence, by creating an unreasonable risk and consciously took a chance of causing death or great bodily harm to Wright with her gun.

Prosecutors do not have to prove Potter intended to cause Wright’s death.

Eldridge said the heart of the case is simple: Potter recklessly and negligently handled her gun, and killed Wright.

“This was no little oopsie. This was not putting the wrong date on check; not entering the wrong password somewhere. This was a colossal screw up. A blunder of epic proportions,” she said. 

That was a reference to a defense expert who testified that doctors and police officers sometimes commit “action errors” where they make fatal mistakes in the heat of the moment.

Eldridge said the case is not about Potter being a nice person or a good cop who is remorseful for killing Wright.

“Members of the jury, good people can commit crimes,” she said.

The fact that she’s remorseful has no place in deliberations, she said.

It’s about her “rash, reckless conduct,” Eldridge said. “It’s about an officer who mishandled her firearm.”

Potter’s attorney, Earl Gray, argued that Potter didn’t cause Wright’s death — Wright did, by resisting arrest and trying to flee — and that she had a right to use deadly force under the law.

Gray argued Potter isn’t criminally liable if a superseding action caused his death, which he claimed Wright did by driving without a license, registration or insurance and using marijuana that morning (“He was stoned,” Gray said at one point), having a warrant for his arrest and protection order against him and then resisting arrest and taking off in the car “like a jet” after being shot.

Daunte Wright immediately after he was shot by Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter.

“He really wanted to get away,” he said. “He just didn’t want to go to jail.”

Gray said if Wright had just complied with police and gone to the police station, he would be alive today. Police were under court order to arrest Wright, he said.

“They had to stop him,” Gray said.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank called that absurd, and factually and legally wrong.

“If we accept that argument — Daunte caused his own death — we have to accept that anytime a person does not meticulously follow the commands of a police officer, they can be shot. There would be no consequences.”

He said he wishes Wright would have followed the officers’ commands, but that doesn’t absolve Potter of her actions.

Frank argued both counts require only that Potter was aware of the risk, and the conscious and intentional act was drawing and shooting the gun. He said prosecutors don’t have to prove she knew there was a gun in her hand, otherwise she’d be charged with murder.

Potter cannot be convicted if jurors find she was authorized to use deadly force under state law. Police can use deadly force in the line of duty to protect officers or others from death or great bodily harm, to make an arrest, enforce a court order or to prevent the escape of someone they believe has committed a felony or who threatened the use of deadly force. Their actions must be deemed reasonable in the moment they act, not with the benefit of hindsight, taking into consideration that police must make split-second decisions during rapidly evolving situations.

Potter testified that she saw a look of fear on her sergeant’s face as he tried to restrain Wright from taking off in the car, and she took out what she thought was her Taser to prevent Wright from dragging then-Sgt. Mychal Johnson with his car. 

Eldridge argued the body camera video showed she didn’t have a clear view of that sergeant.

“No one was dragged,” Eldridge said. “No one was almost dragged.”

Frank used Potter’s own words against her, arguing that her behavior before, during and after the shooting show she knew deadly force wasn’t necessary, by intending to fire her Taser not her gun, admitting she erred in pulling her gun, and saying at the scene “I’m going to go to prison.”

“She knew deadly force wasn’t necessary. If she didn’t believe deadly force was not necessary, how could a reasonable officer in that positive not believe it?”

The jury will be able to see and handle the Taser and firearm during their deliberations to see the difference between them.

Frank noted Wright never fought with the officers.

“He was trying to flee, no doubt about it, but he was not struggling or fighting with these officers,” he said. “He simply pulled away.”  

And he said Johnson seemed calm in the videos, and was successfully subduing Wright until Potter yelled “Taser! Taser! Taser!” and he let go to avoid getting tased.

Rather than saving Sgt. Johnson, she put him and her trainee, Officer Anthony Luckey, at risk by firing her gun, with a cartridge casing bouncing off Luckey’s face.

“If anyone saved Sgt. Johnson’s life, it was Daunte Wright when he took a bullet to the chest,” she said. “Carrying a badge and a gun is not a license to kill. You don’t get to shoot someone when things don’t go according to plan.”

The state’s expert testified that even using a Taser would not have been justifiable, because it could disable the driver of a car.

“Even the decision to use a Taser was not a wise one,” Eldridge said.

With a freeze frame of Potter pointing her gun at Wright on a TV screen in front of the jury, Eldridge implied Potter’s “police family” closed ranks and tried to protect her.

Gray argued another reason to acquit Potter is that she made a mistake in accidentally firing her gun instead of her Taser.

“In the walk of life, everybody makes mistakes. She obviously made a mistake,” he said. “A mistake is not a crime.”

Frank pointed out in rebuttal that there’s no “mistake defense” in the law.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.