A white Minnesota police officer who killed a Black motorist “betrayed her badge” and flouted years of training by mistakenly using her pistol instead of her Taser, a United States prosecutor said during opening statements in the high-profile trial.
Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Erin Eldridge made the comments on Wednesday in the trial of ex-police officer Kimberly Potter, who is facing two manslaughter charges for fatally shooting Daunte Wright, 20, in April.
“This case is about the defendant Kimberly Potter betraying her badge and betraying her oath and betraying her position of public trust,” Eldridge told the jurors. “Their duty to their badge and to the community is to protect life, not to take life.”
Potter, 49, faces first- and second-degree manslaughter charges for the killing of Wright, which set off protests against police brutality in the Brooklyn Center community, north of Minneapolis, where it took place.
The killing came amid a wider national movement for racial justice in the United States.
It also occurred just miles from where George Floyd died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes in May 2020 – and as Chauvin stood trial for Floyd’s murder, for which he was later found guilty.
Potter’s trial is taking place in the same Hennepin County courtroom in which Chauvin was convicted in April.
She has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry maximum sentences of 15 and 10 years, respectively. Her lawyers say she will testify in her own defence.
The 26-year police veteran 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.
She can then be heard saying, “I grabbed the wrong [expletive] gun.” Wright drove off, but his vehicle collided with a concrete barrier moments later. He died at the scene.
Potter’s lawyer, Paul Engh, said during his opening statement on Wednesday that the former officer made a mistake when she grabbed the wrong weapon and shot Wright.
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, Engh told the court. He added that all Wright had to do was surrender.
The defence also is expected to present body camera footage not yet publicly released that showed Potter’s remorse after the killing.
Reckless action versus honest mistake
The most serious charge against her 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.
In court filings, prosecutors have alleged Potter “consciously and intentionally acted in choosing to use force on Daunte Wright and in reaching for, drawing, pointing, and manipulating a weapon”.
Eldridge talked at length about the extensive training received by Potter, which included two Taser-specific courses in the six months prior to the incident. Eldridge said Potter “flouted” her training and the police department’s policies in how she handled her weapons and escalated the traffic stop.
The prosecutor wrapped up her remarks by showing jurors a photo of the jacket worn by Wright emblazoned with the phrase “Heart Breaker”. Eldridge said that “it the defendant who broke Daunte Wright’s heart” when she fired a bullet into his chest.