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Trial begins for ex-cop who mistook gun for Taser in fatal shooting of Black man

In opening statements, attorneys for both sides called Daunte Wright's killing a mistake but differed on culpability.

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) —Opening statements began Wednesday in the manslaughter trial of former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter for the death of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man whose April shooting death sparked renewed protests in a Twin Cities metro already tense over the trial of Derek Chauvin. 

Potter, who said she had mistaken her Glock-19 for a Taser stun gun when she shot Wright, faces first- and second-degree manslaughter charges for his killing.

Attorneys from Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office spent much of Wednesday morning pointing out the seriousness of that claimed mistake and the training Potter went through to prevent such issues. 

“Daunte Wright was unarmed, he had no weapon, he was not violent,” Assistant Attorney General Erin Eldridge said in her opening statement. “He did not threaten the officers in any way. He didn’t reach for anything.” 

“She pulled the trigger, and she shot him in the chest,” Eldridge said of Potter. “And she did all those things without bothering to look at the weapon in her hand.”

Potter’s defense attorney Paul Engh, meanwhile, focused on the contention that it was indeed a mistake, and held that Potter would have been justified in using her gun even if she had intended to. 

“She made a mistake. This was an accident. She’s a human being. But she had to do what she had to do to prevent a death to a fellow officer, too,” Engh said.

He said Potter’s supervisor, Sergeant Mychal Johnson, was leaning into Wright’s car to prevent him from driving away and would have been put at risk if Wright had escaped. 

“Ms Potter’s good name has been besmirched by this allegation,” Engh said, “and by the press coverage, which has been slanted. We seek to reclaim it. And reclaim it we will.” 

Those arguments fell close to projections that Rick Petry, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, made before court opened Wednesday morning.

“On the prosecution side, I think what they’re going to say is that there’s no way in the world a well-trained officer could have or should have made this mistake,” Petry said. Big issues, he said, would be the difference in weight, shape, size and appearance between Potter’s weapons, the length of time she spent aiming at Wright and whether the car was moving at the time Wright was shot. All three issues were brought up by one side or another in opening statements. 

Potter is also expected to testify on her own behalf, a move Petry said was understandable given the importance of Potter’s state of mind to her case. “She’s going to have to testify about what was going on in her head as this whole thing played out,” Petry said. “Any good defense attorney is going to have her kind of walk through what happened.” 

Prosecutors began questioning their first witnesses late Wednesday morning, presenting “spark-of-life” photos of Wright and asking his mother, Katie Bryant, about her memories of the day her son died. Bryant was on the phone with Wright during portions of his interactions with police.

“He sounded really nervous, but I reassured him that he would be OK,” she said, breaking into tears. 

Attorney Earl Gray, also representing Potter, limited his questions for Bryant, focusing on the issues that led to Potter and an officer she was training, Anthony Luckey, to apprehend Wright. He asked if Bryant was aware of Wright’s alleged marijuana use, or the fact that his driver’s license was suspended. She said she was not. 

“I was confused, angry, scared… it was the worst day of my life,” Bryant said of the aftermath of the shooting, after watching herself speak to police on a body camera video. She stayed at the scene late into the night, she said, unwilling to leave her son’s body lying in the street. 

Following Bryant, the afternoon was devoted to testimony from Luckey, who initiated the stop. Luckey, a native of neighboring Brooklyn Park, said he’d noticed Wright use the wrong turn signal and driving with an air freshener dangling from his rearview mirror, a crime in Minnesota. 

Wright, who Bryant had said had just gotten the car from his brother, was not yet the registered owner of the car and could not present a valid license or insurance, Luckey said. After running his name through their computer system, Potter and Luckey learned that he had an outstanding warrant related to a firearms charge. 

With video clips interspersed, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank and Engh each walked through the encounter with Luckey. Engh in particular focused on Luckey’s efforts to restrain Wright before he clambered back toward the car. 

The trial, like Chauvin’s April trial for the murder of George Floyd, is being livestreamed and televised, a rarity in Minnesota courts. Chauvin’s trial was the first-ever such instance and Potter’s is the second.

“Internationally, people are looking at what’s going on in America right now to kind of get a sense for what is just and fair in democracy in the United States,” Petry said of the livestreaming.

“I think it also puts additional pressure on the lawyers,” he added, noting that it could create anxiety or give them a chance for “a week’s worth of free commercials.”

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