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Ex-cop’s supervisor says force against Daunte Wright was justified

The first week of Kim Potter’s manslaughter trial was cut short by snowy Minnesota weather.

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — A worsening snowstorm brought an early end to this week’s proceedings in former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter’s manslaughter trial, which included testimony from Daunte Wright’s loved ones, a family whose vehicle was struck by his out-of-control car and several first responders. 

Potter is on trial for first- and second-degree manslaughter in Wright’s April death. The 26-year veteran and former police union head shot Wright in the abdomen during a traffic stop in April, shortly after threatening to use her Taser stun gun and shouting, “Taser, Taser, Taser.” Wright’s death threw a firebomb into the already tense Twin Cities metro, which was in the throes of Derek Chauvin’s murder trial for the death of George Floyd a year prior. 

Friday’s most dramatic testimony came from Mychal Johnson, the Brooklyn Center Police Department’s patrol sergeant on duty at the time of Wright’s killing. Johnson arrived on the scene in response to a call for backup from the trainee officer who initiated Wright’s traffic stop, Anthony Luckey. He said that when Potter shot Wright, he was leaning into the car and grabbing Wright’s arm in an effort to restrain him and prevent him from driving away. 

Johnson, now with the Goodhue County Sheriff’s Office south of the Twin Cities, said that Wright’s apparent effort to flee with Johnson in the car was sufficient to justify the use of deadly force. 

“If he had taken off with you in that car halfway,” Potter’s attorney Earl Gray asked Johnson, “What do you think would be the worst that would happen?”

Johnson said that he would probably be dragged. After further questioning from Gray he said he ran the risk of being seriously injured or killed. 

“If that were the case,” Gray asked, “would an officer in your position, with officer Potter trying to stop [Wright] from resisting with you and resisting Luckey, would it be fair for that officer to use a firearm?”

“By state statute, yes,” Johnson replied. 

Johnson’s statement bolstered the defense’s contention that Potter exercised restraint in only seeking to use her Taser. Potter's other attorney Paul Engh said in opening statements that the defense would seek to show that while firing her Glock was an accident, Potter was within her rights to do so. 

Friday’s proceedings concluded with testimony from acting Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tony Gruenig, who was a commander at the time of Wright’s death. Gruenig’s testimony was far briefer than Johnson’s, and focused largely on the procedure used to report uses of deadly force to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which handles investigations of police shootings in the state. An agent from the Bureau followed Gruenig with his own account of that investigation. 

Testimony began Wednesday with Wright’s mother Katie Bryant and Luckey. Cold and snowy weather came late to the Twin Cities this week, possibly contributing to the muted protest response to the controversial trial. That hasn’t stopped Brooklyn Center’s school district from extending its winter break in light of the trial or police from preparing for possible renewed civil unrest. 

Thursday saw the most witnesses take the stand of any day so far. Prosecutors walked the jury through the scene first from the perspective of Wright’s girlfriend, Alayna Albrecht-Payton, who was in the car with him at the time, and then through the eyes and body cameras of several police officers who arrived on the scene in response to a confused series of calls. 

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After the shooting, Wright fell back into the vehicle, which sped away and struck a car driven by a couple in their eighties. The bulk of Thursday’s testimony focused on that collision, leading defense attorneys to request a mistrial at the end of the day.

Prosecutors brought the driver of the other vehicle, 84-year-old Patricia Lundgren, to the stand to discuss the crash and its impact on her husband, Kenneth. The Lundgrens’ daughter Denise Lundgren Wells also testified, saying that after the crash it became “increasingly hard to understand him” and that he was put into hospice care not long afterward. 

The defense took serious issue with this line of testimony.

“The issue in our case here is the thought process of Kimberly Potter at the moment that she yelled ‘Taser, Taser, Taser’ and pulled the trigger of her gun,” Engh said. “We have spent the day, rather, on an accident that was caused by Daunte Wright’s excessive speed.” 

“I didn’t see any evidence directed towards the proof of guilt today,” he said. 

Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu denied the request for a mistrial, saying it was “getting ahead of ourselves.” On Friday, she admonished prosecutors to keep repetition to a minimum. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank argued that the evidence presented went towards their argument that Potter’s conduct was dangerous to the public and supported a harsher sentence. 

Several of the officers called to the scene after the shooting said they believed at first that they were dealing with a straightforward car collision. Others said they’d heard that shots had been fired, but were unclear on who had fired them. After word of gunshots spread, the police set up a barrier between them and the car, pointing guns at Wright’s vehicle while demanding that the occupants put their hands up and exit the car. 

Albrecht-Payton, who shouted “I can’t” several times on body camera video, did not exit the car immediately. Medical attention for Wright and Albrecht-Payton was delayed as a result, some officers and paramedics said. Dustin Johnson, one of the paramedics, said that when he reached Wright, the 20-year-old did not have a pulse or shockable heart rhythm. 

The trial is the second in Minnesota history to be livestreamed online, and its proximity to the Chauvin case has led several to draw comparisons between the two. Chauvin is the first Minnesota police officer to be convicted for an on-the-job murder in the state’s history; his was also the first case to be livestreamed. 

Potter’s case, however, is also distinctly different. The state must prove recklessness as an element of the first-degree charge and culpable negligence for the second-degree charge. The defense and the Brooklyn Center Police Department have both held that Wright’s shooting was accidental, a contention that prosecutors have not challenged. Two of Chauvin’s prosecutors — Frank and Erin Eldridge — are now prosecuting Potter but whereas they argued that Chauvin’s conduct was an intentional abuse of his authority as a police officer, they have so far steered clear of discussing Potter’s mindset, instead focusing on her lengthy career and training in the use of Tasers and her Glock-19 service handgun. 

Potter also faces a whiter jury than Chauvin did. The former Minneapolis cop was convicted by six white, four Black and two multiracial jurors, not counting two white alternates. Potter, meanwhile, faces a jury of nine white people, one Black person and two people who identified as Asian. Hennepin County is approximately 74% white, but Brooklyn Center is one of its larger Black enclaves; only 44.5% of the city was identified as white in recent census data, while 29.0% was listed as Black.

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