Opening statements begin in trial over Daunte Wright killing

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Posters stand on the south lawn Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021 at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis where jury selection begins for former suburban Minneapolis police officer Kim Potter, who says she meant to grab her Taser instead of her handgun when she shot and killed motorist Daunte Wright. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Opening statements began Wednesday at the manslaughter trial of the Minnesota police officer who killed Black motorist Daunte Wright.

Jurors will be presented starkly different views of officer Kim Potter, who pulled her handgun instead of her Taser in what the defense will claim was an innocent mistake. The prosecution opened its case by portraying her as a veteran cop who had undergone extensive training that warned about such a mix-up.

Prosecutor Erin Eldridge told the jury that the fundamental duty of a police officer is to protect the sanctity of life. She said officers promise to safeguard lives, preserve and protect, and maintain calm.

“They promise never to employ unnecessary force or abuse,” said Eldridge, who also read out loud the oath that Brooklyn Center police officers take.

Potter, 49, is charged with first-degree and second-degree manslaughter in Wright’s April 11 death in Brooklyn Center. The white former officer — she resigned two days after the shooting — has said she meant to use her Taser on the 20-year-old Wright after he tried to drive away from a traffic stop as officers tried to arrest him, but that she grabbed her handgun instead.

Her body camera recorded the shooting.

A mostly white jury was seated last week, setting the stage for testimony to begin in a case that sparked angry demonstrations outside the Brooklyn Center police station last spring. Those demonstrations, with protesters frequently clashing with police in riot gear, happened as former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin was on trial just 10 miles (16 kilometers) away for killing George Floyd.

Potter was training a new officer when they pulled Wright over for having expired license plate tags and an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, according to a criminal complaint.

When they found that Wright had an outstanding arrest warrant, they tried to arrest him but he got back into his car instead of cooperating. Potter’s body-camera video recorded her shouting “Taser, Taser, Taser” and “I’ll tase you” before she fired once with her handgun. Afterward, she is heard saying, “I grabbed the wrong (expletive) gun.”

To bolster their claim that it was an accident, defense attorneys have highlighted Potter’s immediate reaction and later body-camera footage that hasn’t been seen by the public in which Potter is said to have repeatedly expressed remorse. But they have also asserted that Potter was within her rights to use deadly force if she had consciously chosen to do so because Wright’s actions endangered other officers at the scene.

“She believed the use of a Taser was appropriate when she saw Mr. Wright’s abject denial of his lawful arrest coupled with his attempted flight,” defense attorney Paul Engh wrote in a pretrial filing seeking to dismiss one of the charges. “She could have shot him.”

Prosecutors have countered that Potter had been trained on Taser use several times during her 26-year police career, including twice in the six months that preceded the shooting. In one of their own pretrial filings, they cited training that explicitly warns officers about confusing a handgun with a Taser and directs them “to learn the differences between their Taser and firearm to avoid such confusion.”

Potter, they argued in their filing, “consciously and intentionally acted in choosing to use force on Daunte Wright and in reaching for, drawing, pointing, and manipulating a weapon.”

A jury of 14 people, including two white alternates, will hear the case. Nine of the 12 jurors likely to deliberate are white, one is Black and two are Asian.

The jury’s racial makeup is roughly in line with the demographics of Hennepin County, which is about 74% white. But the jury is notably less diverse than the one that convicted Chauvin in Floyd’s killing.

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Potter has told the court she will testify.

The most serious charge against Potter 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.

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