The prosecution and defense delivered passionate opening statements on Wednesday in the manslaughter trial of Kim Potter, a white police officer who killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn., in April.
The prosecution sought to humanize Wright, while the defense did the same for Potter.
In her 26 years on the force, Potter had never fired a gun or a Taser — not one shot — her defense team noted during its opening statement.
“She never had to; she was good at de-escalating everything and here that’s what she’s trying to do. ‘I’ll tase you,’ which is another way of saying, ‘Please stop so I don’t have to hurt you,’” said her defense attorney, Paul Engh.
The April 11 shooting occurred after Potter pulled Wright over for expired license plate tags and hanging an air freshener from his rearview mirror. When Potter and the officer she was training discovered Wright had an outstanding warrant, the motorist got back into his car instead of cooperating with the arrest.
In a video recorded by Potter’s body camera, the suburban Minneapolis police officer is heard threatening to use her Taser but instead fatally shooting Wright with her handgun. In the video, Potter exclaims: “I grabbed the wrong f***ing gun.” She resigned shortly after.
On Wednesday, Engh placed some of the blame on Wright for his own death, saying, “All he had to do was stop.”
Engh’s defense included dramatically amplifying his voice while recounting the incident and slamming his hands on the courtroom podium. He further claimed that Potter’s fellow officer was in danger. He said it was a simple mix-up between Potter’s handgun and stun gun.
“She can’t let him leave because he’s gonna kill her partner, and so she does ‘Taser, Taser, Taser’ and pulls the trigger believing that it was a Taser,” Engh said.
Prosecutor Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Erin Eldridge painted a different picture, telling the jury that police officers are legally responsible to know the difference between their lethal and nonlethal weapons.
“We trust them not to use those weapons rashly or recklessly and we expect not to be shot dead on the street for no reason,” Eldridge said.
She argued that the case is about Potter, who served as an officer for longer than Wright was alive, “betraying her badge and betraying her oath and betraying her position of public trust. And on April 11 of this year, she betrayed a 20-year-old kid. She pulled out her firearm, she pointed it at his chest and she shot and killed Daunte Wright.”
The prosecution placed the focus on Potter’s training during her tenure on the force. Eldridge said Potter had received recertification training on Tasers each and every year, including as recently as March, just before the shooting.
Eldridge said part of the training Potter has received with Tasers includes “weapon confusion,” which refers to picking the right weapon in the heat of the moment.
“She understood those warnings, and what did those warnings say? They said, ‘Confusing a handgun with a CEW [conducted electrical weapon] could result in death or serious injury. Learn the differences in the physical feel and holstering characteristics between your CEW and your handgun to help avoid confusion,’” Eldridge said. She added that further police training highlighted this issue.
Both the state and defense concede that Potter did not intend to kill Wright, but prosecutors are pursuing one count each of first-degree manslaughter and second-degree manslaughter because of police training and policies that warn against the very actions she took.
Eldridge argued that even if the Taser was appropriate, officers are not supposed to use stun guns to stop fleeing suspects or shoot them in the chest.
“You don’t tase near the heart and you don’t tase the chest and the reason for that are cardiac risks associated with tasing someone in the chest,” she said.
Eldridge also pointed out the differences between the weapons. She said a Taser is bright yellow while a Glock is fully black, and the gun weighs more than twice as much.
Eldridge also highlighted how Wright was the father of a 1-year-old, Daunte Jr., at the time of his death and had a “loving family” who had just given him the car he was driving and was excited to have.
Engh told the jury that Potter is a mother who knew she wanted to be an officer since she was a kid and followed through on her passion.