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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Minnesota officer who killed Daunte Wright is charged with manslaughter

The maximum punishment for a second-degree manslaughter conviction is 10 years in prison, though sentencing guidelines call for about four years for someone with no criminal history.

By: New York Times | Brooklyn Center |
Updated: April 15, 2021 8:47:40 am
Several signs in George Floyd square in Minneapolis honored Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who was fatally shot by a police officer this week. (Credit: Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times)

Written By Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Julie Bosman

The Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, after appearing to mistake her handgun for her Taser was arrested on Wednesday and charged with second-degree manslaughter following three nights of protests over the killing.

The arrest of the officer, Kimberly A. Potter, who is white, came a day after she resigned from the Brooklyn Center Police Department, as did the Minneapolis suburb’s police chief. Hundreds of people have faced off with the police in Brooklyn Center each night since Wright’s death on Sunday, demanding that the former officer be charged, even as the region is on edge amid the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis officer charged with murdering George Floyd last May.

Peter Orput, the top prosecutor in Washington County, said that Potter, 48, had been taken to jail and was awaiting a first court appearance.

Under Minnesota statutes, second-degree manslaughter can apply in cases where someone has created “unreasonable risk” and kills another person through negligence. The maximum punishment for a conviction is 10 years in prison.

The manslaughter charge suggests that prosecutors concur with a version of events laid out by city officials, that Potter did not intend to kill Wright but had mixed up her weapons. Orput said state investigators had determined that Potter holstered her Taser on her left side and her gun on her right so she would need to use her left hand when pulling out her Taser; the investigators found, he said, that she used her right hand to draw her weapon on Sunday.

A judge set bail for Potter at $100,000, or half of that if she agreed to surrender her passport, give up any guns or ammunition and remain in Minnesota. Potter posted bond and was released from the Hennepin County Jail late Wednesday. Potter’s lawyer, Earl Gray, did not respond to a request for comment.

It was uncertain whether the manslaughter charge would calm the growing outrage over Wright’s death.

Ben Crump, a lawyer for the Wright family, suggested in a statement that the killing had been on purpose and warranted a more serious charge.

“While we appreciate that the district attorney is pursuing justice for Daunte, no conviction can give the Wright family their loved one back,” Crump said. “This was no accident. This was an intentional, deliberate and unlawful use of force.”

Potter, 48, worked for the Police Department for 26 years and was training a younger officer on Sunday afternoon when they pulled Wright’s car over. Officials have said that he had an expired registration on his car and something hanging from his rearview mirror. When officers found that Wright had a warrant out for his arrest and attempted to detain him, he twisted away and got back into his car.

In body-camera footage released on Monday, Potter warned that she would use a stun gun on Wright and then shouted “Taser!” three times before firing once into his chest. Potter could be heard swearing and saying, “I just shot him.” Tim Gannon, the chief of police at the time, described the killing as an “accidental discharge.”

Steven Wright, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, said second-degree manslaughter is a charge for offenses that are not planned — one example in the statute specifically addresses hunting accidents, not uncommon in Minnesota.

“The key issue is whether somebody acted reasonably under the circumstances, whether they created this risk of harm,” Wright said. “The state of mind of the officer is at the core of what we ask the jury to decide. In this case we’re really talking about: Is the accidental shooting forgivable or not?”

Richard Frase, a professor of criminal law at the University of Minnesota, said the second-degree manslaughter statute is worded narrowly enough that the case might prove difficult for prosecutors to prove, noting that it requires them to show that Potter consciously took a chance of “causing death or great bodily harm.”

“She thinks she’s firing a Taser,” he said of the former officer. “How can we prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she consciously took chances of at least causing great bodily harm?”

Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer, was charged with second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death, but he also faces second-degree murder and third-degree murder charges and could be imprisoned for up to 40 years if he is convicted of the most serious charge. The jury is expected to begin deliberating early next week.

For several nights, the death of Wright has brought hundreds of people to the police station in Brooklyn Center, a Minneapolis suburb, where they have been met by Minnesota National Guard members and State Patrol troopers who have fired tear gas, rubber bullets and other projectiles at the crowd. Some of the demonstrators have launched fireworks and thrown rocks and bottles of water at the police. Officers arrested 79 people on Tuesday night. Dozens of businesses in the region were broken into earlier in the week.

Katie Wright, Daunte Wright’s mother, has said that her son called her after the police pulled him over on Sunday and told her that he had been stopped because of an air freshener dangling from his rearview mirror. She said he had been driving with his girlfriend at the time, and that she could hear “fear in his voice” when he called. Wright had a son, Daunte Jr., who is almost 2.

Orput said on Wednesday that the warrant that prompted officers to try to arrest Wright had stemmed from a misdemeanor weapons case. A judge had issued a warrant for Wright’s arrest earlier this month after he missed a court hearing over two misdemeanor charges that he had carried a pistol without a permit and run away from police officers in Minneapolis last June.

Orput, who oversees prosecutions in nearby Washington County, is prosecuting the case even though the shooting took place in Hennepin County; as part of recent overhauls, prosecutors in the Twin Cities region refer police killings to prosecutors in another county to avoid conflicts of interest.

The local government in Brooklyn Center, a city of about 30,000 people, has been in crisis since Wright’s death. The City Council gave Mayor Mike Elliott more authority in the wake of Wright’s death and the city manager, who had previously overseen the Police Department, was fired. Elliott named an acting police chief on Tuesday who vowed to work with the community but admitted he had not yet formulated a plan on how to do so.

Elliott wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, after the charge was announced, that Wright “should be alive and at home with his family.”

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