The suburban Minneapolis police officer who killed Daunte Wright violated her training and “betrayed a 20-year-old kid” when she shot him with a handgun instead of a Taser during a traffic stop, a prosecutor told jurors at the officer’s manslaughter trial Wednesday.
Prosecutor Erin Eldridge began her opening statement at former Brooklyn Center, Minn., Officer Kim Potter’s manslaughter trial by telling jurors that the fundamental duty of a police officer is to protect the sanctity of life. She also 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,” prosecutor Erin Eldridge said. “But on April 11, she betrayed her badge and she failed Daunte Wright.”
Potter, 49, is charged with first-degree and second-degree manslaughter in Wright’s April 11 death in Brooklyn Center, a suburb of nearby Minneapolis. Potter — who resigned two days after the shooting — has said she meant to use her Taser on Wright, 20, after he tried to drive away from a traffic stop as officers attempted to arrest him, but that she grabbed her handgun instead.
Potter is white and Wright was Black. Her body camera recorded the shooting.
Officer pulled handgun, not Taser
Once Potter’s lawyers begin their defence, they’re expected to claim that Wright made an innocent mistake by pulling her handgun instead of her Taser when she shot 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 sparked angry demonstrations outside the Brooklyn Center police station last spring. Those demonstrations, with protesters frequently clashing with police in riot gear, happened as former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin was on trial just 16 kilometres away for killing George Floyd.
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.
Afterward, she is heard saying, “I grabbed the wrong [expletive] gun.”
To bolster their claim that it was an accident, defence attorneys have highlighted Potter’s immediate reaction and later body-camera footage that hasn’t been seen by the public in which Potter is said to have repeatedly expressed remorse. But they have 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.
“She believed the use of a Taser was appropriate when she saw Mr. Wright’s abject denial of his lawful arrest coupled with his attempted flight,” defence attorney Paul Engh wrote in a pretrial filing seeking to dismiss one of the charges. “She could have shot him.”
Potter violated Taser use police, 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.
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.