Kimberly Potter, the former Minnesota police officer on trial for killing Daunte Wright, acted recklessly and with “culpable negligence” in mistaking her handgun for her Taser and firing on the young man, a prosecutor has said in closing arguments, while the defence argued the young Black man caused his own death by resisting arrest.
Erin Eldridge, assistant Minnesota attorney general, said Potter made a “blunder of epic proportions” and did not have “a license to kill” when she shot the 20-year-old Black motorist in a Minneapolis suburb in April.
“She was no rookie. It wasn’t her first day on the job,” Eldridge said in her one-hour closing argument. “We are here because this was entirely preventable. It was a tragedy of her own making. And it’s not just a tragedy. It’s manslaughter.”
“She drew a deadly weapon,” Eldridge told the court. “She aimed it. She pointed it at Daunte Wright’s chest, and she fired.”
Potter, 49, has pleaded not guilty to first- and second-degree manslaughter charges, which carry maximum sentences of 15 and 10 years, respectively. She took the stand in her defence and stressed she thought she was drawing her Taser when she shot Wright with her handgun on April 11, an assertion supported by video of her post-shooting reactions.
Potter is white and the shooting triggered several nights of intense protests outside the police station in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, with critics calling it another example of police brutality against Black Americans.
The incident occurred just a few kilometres north of where Derek Chauvin, a white former Minneapolis police officer, was at the same time standing trial in the case of George Floyd, a Black man whose 2020 death during an arrest set off racial justice protests in many US cities. Chauvin was convicted of murder.
Earl Gray, one of Potter’s attorneys, sought to cast blame for the shooting on Wright, arguing he created a duty to intervene for his client by resisting arrest and trying to drive away with another police officer leaning into the passenger side of the car.
“The causation was Daunte Wright,” Gray told the jury. “Those are the cold, hard facts.”
Eldridge, in her closing arguments, downplayed testimony from some other officers who either described Potter as a good person or said they saw nothing wrong in her actions: “The defendant has found herself in trouble and her police family has her back.”
The defence is also expected to highlight the testimony of Laurence Miller, a psychologist who testified about “action error”, or when a person takes one action while intending to do another. Miller spoke about how such mistakes are common in daily life, such as inputting the wrong computer password or writing down the wrong date, and can be triggered by stress.
Prosecutors have conceded that Potter made a mistake and did not intend to kill Wright. To secure a conviction on the first-degree charge, they must prove she caused his death while committing the misdemeanour offence of recklessly using her firearm. For the second-degree charge, the jury must find Potter guilty of “culpable negligence” by creating an “unreasonable risk and consciously” taking a chance of causing him great harm.
Potter broke down in tears on the stand on Friday, testifying that she was deeply sorry for killing Wright.
Potter and another police officer pulled Wright over because there was an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror and his vehicle’s license tabs were expired. They then learned of a warrant for his arrest on a misdemeanour weapons charge and sought to detain him, which Wright resisted.
Potter can be heard shouting, “Taser, Taser, Taser,” on her body-worn camera before firing into Wright’s car after he broke free from a second officer. Potter testified that she feared for the life of a third officer who had entered through the passenger side if Wright were allowed to drive away.
Eldridge challenged the notion that the third officer’s life was in danger and said Potter’s remorse was irrelevant to the question of whether she should be held accountable for Wright’s death.
The mostly white jury will begin deliberating after Potter’s lawyers present their closing arguments on Monday.
Judge Regina Chu told jurors that she will not make them deliberate on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. They will return after the holiday if they have not reached a verdict by then.