Minnesota officer ‘betrayed her badge’ when she fatally shot Daunte Wright, prosecutor says as trial begins

A suburban Minneapolis police officer who has said she drew her gun instead of her Taser when she fatally shot Black motorist Daunte Wright in April went on trial for manslaughter charges Wednesday, with a prosecutor saying Kim Potter had been trained on how to avoid such deadly mix-ups but still got it wrong.

Potter’s lawyer, though, argued that she made an error, saying, “Police officers are human beings.” And he appeared to cast blame on Wright, saying all the 20-year-old had to do that day was surrender when officers tried to arrest him.

Potter, 49, killed Wright during a traffic stop April 11 in Brooklyn Center in a shooting that was recorded by her body camera. The white officer resigned two days later.

Wright’s mother, Katie Bryant, testified about the moment she saw her son lying in his car after he’d been shot. She said she tried to contact him through a video call after losing an earlier phone connection. She said a woman answered and screamed, “They shot him!” while pointing the phone toward the driver’s seat.

This photo provided by Ben Crump Law shows Wright with his son, Daunte Jr., at his first birthday party. A manslaughter trial for the white police officer who fatally shot Wright during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb in April began Wednesday. (Ben Crump Law/The Associated Press)

“And my son was laying there. He was unresponsive and he looked dead,” Bryant said through tears.

During his opening statement, defence lawyer Paul Engh said Potter made a mistake when she grabbed the wrong weapon and shot Wright after he tried to drive away from a traffic stop while she and other officers were trying to arrest him. 

He said Potter “had to do what she had to do to prevent a death to a fellow officer” who had reached inside Wright’s car and risked being dragged if Wright drove away.

Potter, 49, is charged with first-degree and second-degree manslaughter in Wright’s death. 

The prosecution has said Wright was unarmed.

WATCH | ‘My son should be burying me,’ mother says at Wright’s funeral: 

Calls for justice, reform ring out at Daunte Wright’s funeral

At the funeral for Daunte Wright, the Black Minnesota man shot by a police officer during a traffic stop, lawyers and activists called for police reform as well as justice for his death. 2:04

Earlier Wednesday, prosecutor Erin Eldridge also said Potter violated her training and “betrayed a 20-year-old kid.” She said Potter had received extensive training, including in risks of firing the wrong weapon.

“This is exactly what she had been trained for years to prevent,” Eldridge said. “But on April 11, she betrayed her badge and she failed Daunte Wright.”

Potter’s Taser was holstered on her left side, and her handgun on her right. Prosecutors argue that she was trained explicitly about the danger of avoiding deadly mix-ups.

“We trust them to know wrong from right, and left from right,” Eldridge said. “This case is about an officer who knew not to get it dead wrong, but she failed to get it right.”

A mostly white jury was seated last week.

The case sparked angry demonstrations outside the Brooklyn Center police station last spring. Those demonstrations, where protesters frequently clashed with police in riot gear, happened as former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin was on trial just 16 kilometres away for killing George Floyd.

In this screen grab from video, Prosecutor Erin Eldridge delivers the state’s opening statement in Potter’s trial at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis Wednesday. (Court TV via The Associated Press)

In video Potter says ‘I grabbed the wrong’ gun

Potter was training a new officer when they pulled Wright over for having expired licence plate tags and an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, according to a criminal complaint.

When they found that Wright had an outstanding arrest warrant, they tried to arrest him, but instead of co-operating, he got back into his car.

Potter’s body-camera video recorded her shouting “Taser, Taser, Taser” and “I’ll tase you” before she fired once with her handgun. 

Eldridge played extended body-camera video from the shooting for the jury, including the moments right after Potter shot Wright. 

Her camera recorded her saying “[expletive] I just shot him,” and “I grabbed the wrong [expletive] gun.” After Wright’s car rolls away, the video shows Potter sink to the curb and sit down, exclaiming “Oh my God.”

Defence attorneys argued in pretrial filings that her immediate reaction bolsters their argument that the shooting was a tragic accident.

Officer in training testifies

The officer Potter was training that day, Anthony Luckey, testified that during the stop, he smelled marijuana and saw marijuana residue on the car’s console. He also said Wright didn’t have a licence and produced an expired proof of insurance that was under another person’s name.

There was a warrant for Wright’s arrest on a weapons charge, which Engh said meant officers had no choice but to arrest him.

Luckey testified that he thought Wright might have had a gun in the car because of the outstanding warrant and his intuition. The prosecutor has said Wright was unarmed.

Defence attorney Paul Engh delivers his opening statement Wednesday in Potter’s trial at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, in this screen grab from video. (Court TV via The Associated Press)

“A court of law directed him to arrest him,” Engh shouted while pounding on the courtroom lectern.

There was also a restraining order against Wright, the defence lawyer said. He told jurors it wasn’t about expired tags by that point, and that officers also had to make sure the woman in Wright’s car was OK because of the restraining order. 

He said this was standard police work and that Potter made an error.

“We are in a human business,” Engh said. “Police officers are human beings. And that’s what occurred.”

But the defence has also asserted that Potter was within her rights to use deadly force if she had consciously chosen to do so because Wright’s actions endangered other officers at the scene.

Potter violated Taser use policy, prosecutor says

Prosecutors say Potter had been trained on Taser use several times during her 26-year police career, including twice in the six months preceding the shooting.

In one of their own pretrial filings, they cited training that explicitly warns officers about confusing a handgun with a Taser and directs them “to learn the differences between their Taser and firearm to avoid such confusion.”

Eldridge told jurors they would hear about several policies that she says Potter violated, including a policy on Taser use that says flight from an officer is not a good enough cause for using it.

Wright’s relatives attend a rally against police brutality in St. Paul, Minn., on May 24. (Christian Monterrosa/The Associated Press)

A jury of 14 people, including two white alternates, will hear the case. Nine of the 12 jurors likely to deliberate are white, one is Black and two are Asian.

The jury’s racial makeup is roughly in line with the demographics of Hennepin County, which is about 74 per cent white. But the jury is notably less diverse than the one that convicted Chauvin in Floyd’s killing.

Potter has told the court she will testify. 

The most serious charge against Potter requires prosecutors to prove recklessness, while the lesser requires them to prove culpable negligence.

Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of just over seven years on the first-degree manslaughter count and four years on the second-degree one. Prosecutors have said they will seek a longer sentence.

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