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Kim Potter Found Guilty of Manslaughter for Daunte Wright’s Death

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MINNEAPOLIS — The former police officer who said she mistook her gun for her Taser when she fatally shot a man during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb was convicted of two counts of manslaughter on Thursday, a rare guilty verdict for a police officer that is likely to send her to prison for years.

The jury deliberated across four days before agreeing on guilty verdicts for Kimberly Potter, a 49-year-old white woman who testified that she had never fired her gun in her 26 years on the police force in Brooklyn Center, Minn., until she shot a single bullet into the chest of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who had been driving to a carwash in April.

As the verdict was read, Ms. Potter remained stoic, looking briefly downward and then toward the jurors but never crying, as she had when she testified. Judge Regina Chu ordered that Ms. Potter be immediately sent to prison, and deputies led her out of the courtroom in handcuffs as one of her relatives shouted, “Love you, Kim!”

It is unusual for police officers to be convicted in accidental shootings, and jurors heard testimony from several current and former police officers — including two put on the stand by prosecutors — who said that Ms. Potter had been justified in trying to use her Taser, or even firing her gun.

Video transcript Back bars 0:00 / 1:37 – 0:00 transcript Family and Prosecution React to Verdict in Kimberly Potter Trial Daunte Wright’s mother and the attorney general of Minnesota gave remarks on the jury’s decision to convict Ms. Potter on two counts of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Mr. Wright. “The moment that we heard guilty on the manslaughter one, emotions, every single emotion that you could imagine just running through your body at that moment. I kind of let out a yelp because it was built up in the anticipation of what was to come while we were waiting for the last few days. And now we’ve been able to process it. We want to thank the entire prosecution team. We want to thank community support, everybody who’s been out there that has supported us in this long fight for accountability.” “With the jury finding Kimberly Potter guilty today of manslaughter in the first degree, and manslaughter in the second degree in connection with Daunte’s death, we have a degree of accountability for Daunte’s death. 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. My thoughts are also with Ms. Potter today. 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. I don’t wish that on anyone, but it would be — but it was our responsibility as the prosecution, as ministers of justice to pursue justice wherever it led, and the jury found the facts.” Daunte Wright’s mother and the attorney general of Minnesota gave remarks on the jury’s decision to convict Ms. Potter on two counts of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Mr. Wright. Credit Credit… Aaron Nesheim for The New York Times

Mr. Wright had been trying to flee from Ms. Potter and two other officers who were attempting to arrest him on a warrant. At trial, prosecutors conceded that the shooting was an accident, but they argued that Ms. Potter had been so reckless that she should be imprisoned.

Judge Chu will sentence Ms. Potter, who resigned two days after the shooting, at a hearing scheduled for February. The standard sentence for the more serious charge, first-degree manslaughter, is a little more than seven years in prison, and the maximum penalty is 15 years.

Mr. Wright’s parents let out cries in the courtroom as the guilty verdicts were read and later joined several dozen of Mr. Wright’s supporters who celebrated outside of the courthouse in downtown Minneapolis.

“Today, Minnesota has shown that police officers are not going to continue to pull their gun instead of their Taser,” Mr. Wright’s mother, Katie Bryant, said to the supporters. “And we made this happen, you made this happen, Daunte Wright made this happen.”

Image Mr. Wright with his son, Daunte Jr., at his first birthday party. Credit… Ben Crump Law

Body camera videos from the traffic stop on April 11 show Mr. Wright twisting out of the grip of another officer and getting back into the driver’s seat of his car to avoid being handcuffed. A judge had issued a warrant for Mr. Wright’s arrest that month after he missed a court date on charges that he had illegally possessed a gun and run from the police.

In the videos, Ms. Potter threatens to stun Mr. Wright with her Taser, but she actually draws her department-issued Glock. After yelling “Taser! Taser! Taser!” she pulls the trigger. Then, realizing she shot him instead, Ms. Potter shouts that she had grabbed the wrong weapon, and collapses and sobs as she says she is going to prison.

The shooting took place during the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white former Minneapolis police officer who was ultimately convicted of murdering George Floyd, a Black man whose death led to a huge protest movement and heightened scrutiny of police killings. The Potter trial was seen by some as a test of whether juries were more likely to convict officers of crimes after the outcry over Mr. Floyd’s death.

At a news conference after the verdict, Keith Ellison, the Minnesota attorney general whose office prosecuted the case, said he had long believed it would be difficult to win a conviction. Mr. Ellison said Ms. Potter had gone from being an “honored member of a noble profession to being convicted of a serious crime.”

“I don’t wish that on anyone,” he said.

Image Mr. Wright’s mother, Katie Bryant, visited a memorial in April at the location where her son was fatally shot. Credit… Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Richard Frase, an emeritus law professor at the University of Minnesota, said the fact that Ms. Potter was charged and convicted was a sign that prosecutors and jurors were increasingly willing to punish police officers for killing people.

“Prosecutors have become more confident that they actually have a shot at getting a conviction,” Mr. Frase said. “The state did a pretty effective job of making its case.”

In convicting Ms. Potter, jurors rejected the defense that she had been justified in firing her gun and found that she had knowingly taken a risk of seriously harming Mr. Wright, even if she mistakenly thought she was firing her Taser.

The jurors’ verdict forms indicated that much of their deliberations, which began on Monday and lasted 27 hours, were spent on the first-degree manslaughter charge. That charge required jurors to find that Ms. Potter had killed Mr. Wright by recklessly handling her gun, defined as committing a “conscious or intentional act” with her gun that creates a substantial risk.

All 12 jurors had agreed to find Ms. Potter guilty of second-degree manslaughter by Tuesday morning, and they asked Judge Chu later that day what to do if they “cannot reach consensus,” suggesting that they were in conflict on the more serious charge.

The judge urged them to keep discussing the case, and they did so for 14 more hours before finding Ms. Potter guilty late on Thursday morning.

Image Judge Regina Chu ordered that Ms. Potter be immediately sent to prison. Deputies led her out of the courtroom in handcuffs as one of her relatives shouted, “Love you, Kim!” Credit… Court TV, via Associated Press

Daunte Demetrius Wright had played basketball in high school and later worked at Taco Bell and then a shoe store with his father. His son, Daunte Jr., was 1 when Mr. Wright was killed, and friends and relatives said becoming a father had made him want to improve his life. His mother testified that he had recently enrolled in a vocational school and was considering pursuing carpentry.

When Ms. Potter took the stand as the last of 33 witnesses in the trial, she sobbed while describing the moments leading up to Mr. Wright’s death and said she was “so sorry” it had happened.

She had been riding in a police car with Officer Anthony Luckey, a rookie officer she was training, when Officer Luckey began following Mr. Wright’s white Buick because he saw the car using the wrong turn signal. Officer Luckey noticed that the car had an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, which is against the law in many states, and that it also had an expired registration sticker.

When Mr. Wright’s car was photographed by criminal investigators, a tree-shaped air freshener was on the driver’s seat, covered in his blood.

Ms. Potter testified that in the moments before the shooting, she had seen the third officer at the scene, Sgt. Mychal Johnson, leaning into the car and that he had “a look of fear on his face.” Her lawyers argued that the shooting was justified because Sergeant Johnson could have been dragged to his death if Mr. Wright drove away.

Prosecutors argued that Ms. Potter had been wrong to try to use her Taser on Mr. Wright because her department’s policies warned against using a Taser on someone driving a car. They also said only a small part of Sergeant Johnson’s body had been in the car when Ms. Potter fired.

“Accidents can still be crimes,” a prosecutor, Erin Eldridge, told the jury during closing arguments. She called the killing “a colossal screw up” and “a blunder of epic proportions.”

Image The Taser and pistol Ms. Potter carried on April 11, as they were shown in court last week. Credit… via Court TV

In the defense’s closing argument, Earl Gray, a lawyer for Ms. Potter, said Mr. Wright had “caused his own death” by trying to flee from the police. He also said Ms. Potter should not be imprisoned for an accident.

“This lady here made a mistake, and, my gosh, a mistake is not a crime,” Mr. Gray said.

Tim Gannon, the previous chief of the Brooklyn Center police, testified that Ms. Potter had not broken his department’s rules.

Mr. Gannon, who testified for the defense and said he had been forced to resign because he refused to fire Ms. Potter for the shooting, said that when he viewed videos of the encounter, he saw “no violation — of policy, procedure or law.”

For a week after the shooting, thousands of people gathered outside of the Brooklyn Center Police Department, grilling food and providing groceries to nearby residents by day and throwing water bottles and other objects at a line of police officers come nightfall. The police made hundreds of arrests and fired an array of projectiles, including foam bullets, canisters of smoke and pepper spray that made it difficult to breathe.

During the trial, Ms. Potter’s husband, a retired police officer, sat in the courtroom for much of the testimony, as did Mr. Wright’s mother, Ms. Bryant, who often cried quietly in court as videos of her son’s death were shown to jurors.

On the first day of the trial, Ms. Bryant testified that her son had called her when the police had pulled him over, but that the line had gone dead seconds before he began to struggle with officers. Ms. Bryant said she raced to the scene, where she saw a white sheet that covered everything except for her son’s familiar tennis shoes.