A jury in the United States has found former Minnesota police officer Kimberly Potter guilty of two counts of manslaughter in the fatal April shooting of Black motorist Daunte Wright, which set off mass racial justice protests.
Potter pleaded not guilty to first- and second-degree manslaughter charges in relation to the shooting of Wright, 20, during a traffic stop north of Minneapolis on April 11.
The 12-member jury found Potter, 49, guilty of both charges on Thursday.
Prosecutors had argued during the trial that Potter, a police veteran, “betrayed her badge” and flouted years of training by mistakenly drawing her firearm instead of her Taser during the fatal incident.
Wright’s family members celebrated the verdict outside the court, Al Jazeera’s John Hendren reported.
— John Hendren (@johnhendren) December 23, 2021
Wright’s killing happened just a few miles north of where Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was at the same time standing trial for killing George Floyd, a Black man whose 2020 death during an arrest set off protests in US cities over racism and police brutality.
Potter, who was taken away in handcuffs on Thursday after Judge Regina Chu rejected her attorney’s plea for her to be allowed to spend Christmas with family, faces a maximum of 15 years in prison on the most serious charge and 10 years on the second.
Chu ordered Potter taken into custody and held without bail, and scheduled her to be sentenced on February 18.
“The family of Daunte Wright is relieved that the justice system has provided some measure of accountability for the senseless death of their son, brother, father and friend,” civil rights lawyers Benjamin Crump, Antonio Romanucci and Jeff Storms, who represent Wright’s family, said in a statement on Thursday after the verdict was announced.
“From the unnecessary and overreaching tragic traffic stop to the shooting that took his life, that day will remain a traumatic one for this family and yet another example for America of why we desperately need change in policing, training and protocols.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also welcomed the verdict as offering “a rare glimpse of accountability in an instance of police violence”, but said the fight for justice would continue across the country.
“And real justice means that these situations do not happen in the first place,” Brandon Buskey, director of the ACLU’s criminal law reform project, said in a statement. “The ACLU will continue to fight alongside our allies throughout the country to reimagine a world where Black and other marginalized people like Daunte Wright are free to live a life without the fear of racialized violence.”
The basic facts of Wright’s killing, which was caught on Potter’s body-worn camera and fuelled several nights of racial justice protests in the Brooklyn Center community where it took place and in nearby Minneapolis, were for the most part not in dispute.
The prosecutors and defence lawyers agreed that Potter mistakenly drew the wrong weapon and never meant to kill Wright. At issue was whether the jury would find her actions to be reckless in violation of the state’s manslaughter statutes, or chalk up the incident to a tragic mistake that did not warrant criminal liability.
Potter was training a new officer when the duo pulled Wright over for having expired licence plate tags and an air freshener hanging from the car’s rearview mirror, according to the criminal complaint.
The officers moved to arrest Wright when they discovered he had an outstanding warrant. As he attempted to flee, body camera footage shows Potter yelling, “Taser, Taser, Taser” and “I’ll tase you” before she fired a single shot with her handgun.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors stressed Potter’s 26 years as a police officer, a level of experience they said made her mistake indefensible.
They said she disregarded her training, which included Taser-specific courses in the months before the shooting, and took a conscious and unreasonable risk in using any weapon against the unarmed Wright.
Potter’s lawyers sought to blame Wright for resisting arrest, which they argued had created a dangerous situation and justified her use of force. While acknowledging her mistake, they said her actions were not criminal because she thought she was using her Taser and was unaware she had drawn her handgun.
The defence also leaned heavily on Laurence Miller, a psychologist who testified about “action error”, or when a person takes one action while intending to do another. Miller said such mistakes were common and can be triggered by stress.
To secure a conviction on the first-degree manslaughter charge, prosecutors were required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Potter caused Wright’s death while committing the misdemeanour offence of recklessly using a firearm, according to Minnesota law.
For second-degree manslaughter, the jury was required to find Potter was guilty of “culpable negligence”, meaning she created an “unreasonable risk and consciously” took a chance of causing Wright death or serious bodily harm.