MINNEAPOLIS (CN) —Attorneys in former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter’s manslaughter trial made their closing arguments Monday morning, summarizing their cases for whether or not Potter should be held liable for the April shooting death of 20-year-old Black motorist Daunte Wright.
Potter, a white woman, has maintained since Wright’s death that she had intended to use her Taser electric weapon rather than her gun during a traffic stop for expired vehicle registration and subsequent arrest of Wright on a misdemeanor weapons warrant.
Her attorney Earl Gray emphasized that point during his arguments, saying that “a mistake is not a crime” and arguing Wright had caused his own death by driving away after being shot and striking another vehicle.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, put the focus on Potter’s 26-year career with the Brooklyn Center Police Department and her extensive training on use of Tasers and firearms. Assistant Attorneys General Matthew Frank and Erin Eldridge said that the shooting was unjustifiable, even if unintentional.
“Every year she saw the PowerPoints, every year she learned about the risk of weapon confusion,” Eldridge told jurors. “Every year she signed the paperwork acknowledging the risks. And all that training and all that experience shows that she knows she shouldn’t have done what she did.”
Eldridge also pointed to Potter’s statements on the scene, as heard on body camera video: “I shot him. I grabbed the wrong fucking gun. I’m going to prison. I killed a boy.” She said that Potter’s own statements belied the defense’s contention that she had been acting to protect Sergeant Mychal Johnson, who had clambered into Wright’s car to grab the gearshift.
“The defendant didn’t save Sergeant Johnson’s life. Both Sergeant Johnson and [Wright’s passenger] Alayna Albrecht-Payton were in the line of fire,” Eldridge said.
Gray spent much of his closing throwing into question the credibility of the prosecution’s use-of-force expert, Seth Stoughton. A professor of law at the University of South Carolina, Stoughton testified that Potter was not justified in using either deadly or nondeadly force, in part because Wright’s car could become an “unguided hazard” were he incapacitated.
The defense attorney contrasted Stoughton’s five-year tenure as a police officer to that of his own expert, Stephen Ijames of the Springfield Police Department in Missouri. Ijames testified that Potter would have been justified in using deadly force even had she intended to do so, citing the possibility that Wright could drive away with Johnson in the car.
Gray also called attention to Stoughton’s pay. “It’s hard to believe our state of Minnesota would do that, hire a guy like that,” he said. “Is there bias? I don’t know. He can be paid up to $95,000. Our expert doesn’t charge.”
On rebuttal, Frank pointed out that Stoughton had billed prosecutors just under $10,000.
Gray also said that prosecutors had tried to bamboozle jurors by showing them stills or slowed-down clips from body camera footage. “Make it chaos, don’t slow-motion it. Make it go at the right speed,” he encouraged the jury.
He made a grisly reference to the case of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer whose trial for murder provided a tense local backdrop for Wright’s shooting.
“Officer Luckey, being a nice guy, he could have taken him and thrown him against the car and put his knee on his neck. No, he said ‘put your hands against your back, I’m going to handcuff you,’” Gray said, referring to Potter's trainee Andrew Luckey and Chauvin's fatal kneeling on George Floyd's neck.
That didn’t make a difference to Wright, the attorney argued. “He didn’t want to go to jail. He wasn’t going to listen to these police officers.”
Frank took over from Eldridge for rebuttal, and pointed to what he called a contradiction between the defense’s arguments.
“Ms. Potter wants you to believe that Mr. Wright was not in a position to operate the vehicle, because it justifies the use of her Taser,” he said. “Yet they also, Ms. Potter wants you to believe that he was in a position to operate the vehicle, because it justifies deadly force.”
“Now which is it? The evidence will tell you which it is. Ms. Potter did not believe that the use of deadly force was necessary to protect anybody," he told jurors.
Frank said that the slow-motion video and stills were used to give the jury a clear view of the important facts, but that they could and should watch the clips however they pleased: “Watch them in real time, I encourage that."
After the jury left the courtroom, defense attorney Paul Engh took issue with Frank’s rebuttal, calling for a mistrial.
“The purpose of the rebuttal is to briefly address key points in the defense argument. This particular rebuttal ran fourteen minutes, which is almost as long as Mr. Gray argued. It was pre-typed, pre-outlined, with a design to go that long," Engh said.
“It’s not a rebuttal. This is a sandbag,” he added.
Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu quickly denied the motion.
Jurors will deliberate until 6 p.m. on Monday. Potter faces charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter. Together, the charges carry a potential sentence of up to 25 years in prison, though most first-time offenders receive substantially shorter sentences.
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