MINNEAPOLIS — Twelve jurors are tasked with deciding if Kim Potter, a former Minnesota police officer, is guilty of first- and second-degree manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright this year.
The panel must determine if prosecutors proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Potter “recklessly” handled her firearm and caused Wright’s death through her “culpable negligence” – charge elements that experts say leave much to jurors’ interpretation.
Several lawyers following the trial told USA TODAY the case hinges on how jurors understand whether Potter acted “consciously.” The charges do not require prosecutors to prove that Potter, who is white, intended to kill the 20-year-old Black motorist.
“It boils down to — how does the jury apply that consciousness element in both of these charges,” said Rachel Moran, an associate law professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. “There’s probably going to be disagreement among those 12 people about what does it mean in this particular case.”
On April 11, Potter, a Brooklyn Center police officer, and her trainee pulled Wright over and discovered he had an arrest warrant for a weapons violation and an order of protection against him. During the struggle to arrest Wright, Potter yelled “Taser” multiple times and fired one shot into Wright’s chest – an injury that was not survivable, the medical examiner testified.
After the shooting, Wright drove down the street and crashed into an oncoming car. Potter shouted that she “grabbed the wrong” gun, according to police body camera videos. “I’m going to go to prison,” she is heard saying.
Defense attorneys say Potter confused her firearm for her Taser but was justified in using deadly force because she feared Wright would injure another officer as he drove away. The defense also argued Wright’s refusal to comply with officers caused his own death.
Here’s what to know about the charges.
What does reckless, culpable negligence mean?
To convict on the charge of first-degree manslaughter, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Potter caused Wright’s death while committing a misdemeanor – reckless handling or use of a firearm “so as to endanger the safety of another with such force and violence that death or great bodily harm to any person was reasonably foreseeable.”
In instructing jurors Monday, Hennepin County District Court Judge Regina Chu said someone “acts recklessly if, under the totality of the circumstances, she commits a conscious or intentional act in connection with the handling or use of a firearm that creates a substantial or unjustifiable risk that she is aware of and disregards.”
For second-degree manslaughter, prosecutors must prove Potter caused Wright’s death through “culpable negligence,” meaning she created “an unreasonable risk and consciously took a chance of causing death or great bodily harm to Wright” while using or possessing a firearm.
“Culpable negligence is intentional conduct that the defendant may not have intended to be harmful but that an ordinary and reasonably prudent person would recognize as involving a strong probability of injury to others,” Chu said.
Under Minnesota law, an officer’s use of deadly force is only justified in the line of duty on the three grounds, including when necessary to protect the officer or another from apparent death or great bodily harm.
“Whether the defendant’s apparent decision to use a Taser was reasonable or appropriate is not a defense to the charges in this case,” Chu told jurors.
‘Was it conscious and intentional what she did?’
Experts following the case say elements of the two manslaughter charges leave much to interpretation. Moran said the statutes are “poorly written” and “rely on a lot of outdated language.”
“Frankly, the jury instructions are somewhat confusing, especially for non-lawyers, so it’s hard to know how the jury will understand its charge,” Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, told USA TODAY. “That creates an additional layer of unpredictability, even aside from the mixed facts.”
Mike Brandt, a Minneapolis defense attorney who has been following the trial, called the jury instructions “particularly nebulous.” Brandt said he believes the lynchpin of the case hangs on the jury’s understanding of the words conscious and intentional.
“Was it conscious and intentional what she did? The problem with that one is, if you break it down to those two words, I think that’s where the state is going to have some problems,” Brandt said.
The prosecution’s case, Moran said, is that Potter did act intentionally in the sense that she drew a weapon.
“She didn’t intend for serious harm to result, but the state’s theory would be that any reasonable officer in her position would realize they’d drawn the wrong weapon,” Moran said.
In her closing argument, prosecutor Erin Eldridge told jurors “accidents can still be crimes if they occur as the result of recklessness or culpable negligence.” She described intentional acts as “some voluntary act, not a reflex, some choice you make to act or move your body in a certain way, like putting your hand in a weapon.”
Defense attorney Earl Gray argued “a mistake is not a crime.” He said Potter did not “recklessly, consciously handle a gun” because she didn’t know she was holding one.
Prosecutor Matthew Frank, however, said the state did not have to prove Potter knew she had a firearm in her hand to be found guilty on the charges.
Sentencing in Kim Potter trial
The first-degree manslaughter charge carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and/or a $30,000 fine. The second-degree charge has a maximum sentence of 10 years and/or a $20,000 fine.
Minnesota judges, however, typically follow sentencing guidelines that call for less time. Minnesota offenders also typically serve two-thirds of their time in prison and one-third on supervised release.
Prosecutors are seeking a longer sentence on the charges due to what they say are aggravating factors in the case. Prosecutors say Potter abused her position of authority and “caused a greater than normal danger” to the safety of other people nearby, including the passenger in Wright’s vehicle, two officers on the scene and civilians on the busy public street.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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