MINNEAPOLIS — After a 24-day trial here, former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter was found guilty Dec. 23 on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of 20-year-old African American Daunte Wright during a traffic stop last April. When Wright moved to drive off to avoid arrest on outstanding weapons charges, Potter mistakenly drew her Glock pistol and shot Wright, thinking she was firing her Taser.
The trial conduct of the prosecutors and judge violated key legal rights that protect working people against the state and are needed as our class battles to defend our interests.
Until recently, the charging and prosecution of a cop for killing someone, much less by accident as was the case with Potter, was extremely rare. Recent prosecutions of police like Derek Chauvin — who was convicted in the killing of George Floyd here — and Potter are a response to massive anti-police brutality protests in 2020 and a wide and growing belief that cops should be held accountable for unjustifiable and illegal acts of violence.
But in many of these cases, liberal prosecutors, politicians and leaders of Black Lives Matter groups have pushed to run roughshod over the rights of the defendants in a drive to get convictions and impose long and vindictive sentences. This poses a danger for all working people, who often get caught up in the capitalist criminal justice system, especially those active in the class struggle.
Wright was pulled over by Potter, a 26-year veteran, and a rookie cop who she was training, for an expired registration and an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. The two cops then attempted to arrest Wright after learning he had an outstanding warrant on a weapons possession charge. Wright broke free and tried to drive away in his car. Police body camera videos shown at the trial show Potter yelling, “Taser! Taser! Taser!” before firing her pistol. After realizing she shot her gun, not a Taser, Potter collapsed to the ground, inconsolable. She cried out, “I just shot him. I grabbed the wrong (expletive) gun. I’m going to go to prison. I killed a boy.”
The prosecution never disputed the fact Potter thought she had a Taser in her hand when she shot Wright.
Wright’s death came in the middle of the trial of Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd.
Potter was initially charged with second-degree manslaughter, meaning she caused Wright’s death through an act of negligence. The charge of negligence means that the accused is not aware of the risk, but should have been.
However, after the case was taken over by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, the questionable charge of first-degree manslaughter was added. This charge says that she caused Wright’s death by acting recklessly with her firearm. The maximum sentence for the first-degree charge is 15 years in prison, substantially longer than second-degree manslaughter. By standard legal definitions of recklessness, Potter would have had to knowingly disregard a risk of death or serious harm.
State pressure for longer sentence
Ellison hoped the pressure of liberal public opinion in the Twin Cities area would override the actual working of the law and pressure the jury to find Potter guilty on the more weighty charge.
A number of Black Lives Matter figures spoke out, making it clear their desire for a conviction was more important than the facts in the case or the importance of the rights involved.
At a news conference Nov. 29, Courteney Ross, who said she was George Floyd’s girlfriend, said, “The fact that Kim Potter [brandished] a weapon for a routine traffic stop when the entire world was looking at racist cops under a microscope proved to me that Kim Potter was so brash and brazen that she murdered a Black man with no thought.”
Potter’s lawyers failed to center their case on the undisputed fact that Potter did not know she had a gun in her hand and could not have knowingly created the risk of killing Wright with a deadly weapon. Instead, they argued that even if she had intentionally drawn and fired her pistol, she would have been justified.
The prosecution, in its closing argument — which was not subject to defense rebuttal — falsely claimed that it didn’t matter if Potter thought she was holding the Taser to find her guilty of recklessness. And Judge Regina Chu failed to correct this and instruct the jury on what the law actually said.
After four days of deliberations, the jury returned guilty verdicts on both counts. They agreed relatively quickly to convict Potter on the lesser charge, but told the judge they were having difficulty reaching agreement on the first-degree charge. Two days later they found her guilty on both.
“Black Lives Matter activists,” columnist Paul Butler wrote in the Dec. 29 Washington Post, “should be wary, however, of the hardcore strategies deployed to win their case.”
Butler, who is African American, is a professor of law at Georgetown University. He writes on “issues at the convergence of criminal justice and race.”
“Prosecutors had to prove only that Potter committed a misdemeanor — recklessly handling a firearm,” he wrote. “This is the manslaughter version of the felony murder charge.” Felony murder is used by prosecutors to win long sentences — even executions — for people who happen to commit a crime in which someone else kills someone.
“Prosecutors often rely on these kinds of charges when they want the most severe punishment for people who have killed accidentally,” he said.
Butler concludes, “These kinds of prosecutorial power grabs will only come back to haunt people of color because ‘bad apple’ cops will not be their primary targets.”
This points to the importance for working people of rights violated in this trial.
Prosecutors said they weren’t satisfied with just winning the harsher sentence, but plan to seek a prison term longer than recommended guidelines at Potter’s Feb. 18 sentencing hearing. They argue she should spend even more time in prison because she abused her authority and endangered others.