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Use-of-force testimony sparks tension in Potter trial

Prosecutors are expected to rest their case Thursday.

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Wednesday afternoon yielded terse exchanges in former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter’s manslaughter trial, as prosecutors and defense attorneys skirmished over the boundaries of admissible testimony. 

The afternoon was dominated by testimony from University of South Carolina professor Seth Stoughton, an expert witness for the prosecution who focused on the question of whether Potter’s use of force was justified given the circumstances. 

Potter’s attorneys, Earl Gray and Paul Engh, have expressed their intent to prove that while Potter didn’t intent to shoot Wright but to deploy her Taser electrical weapon, either course of action would have been fair game. For that they have pointed to Sgt. Mychal Johnson, who had climbed into Wright’s brother’s car in an effort to keep the fleeing Wright away from its gear shift. Johnson reassured Potter at the scene, saying that Wright had been about to drive off with Johnson in the car. He testified Friday that Potter’s use of force was justified. 

Questioned by Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank, who is leading the prosecution, Stoughton said he thought otherwise. Wright did not pose the threat of harm required to justify deadly force, he said, and even using the Taser would not have been wise. Wright had clambered partway into the vehicle at the time of his shooting, and the shot sent him, his vehicle and a passenger careening into another car.

“Shooting someone in that position,” Stoughton said, “is highly unlikely to actually address the threat posed by the vehicle.” 

The Taser, he said, was not a much better option.

“If the Taser had not been successful in achieving neuromuscular incapacitation, if it had just resulted in pain, it’s highly likely to just incentivize Mr. Wright to flee,” he said. “If it was successful in achieving neuromuscular incapacitation, it created the potential to turn the vehicle into an unguided hazard.”

Stoughton also served as one of Frank’s expert witnesses in the trial of Derek Chauvin, testifying just a day after Potter’s fatal shooting of Wright. Chauvin was also in court Wednesday; across the river in St. Paul, he entered a plea agreement with federal prosecutors which would see three of four charges against him for violating Floyd and an anonymous Black teenager’s civil rights dismissed. 

On cross-examination, Stoughton’s testimony became the site of a series of evidentiary battles and a few procedural tiffs. Judge Regina Chu, her voice increasingly strained, cautioned Gray and Stoughton repeatedly about talking over each other. Gray, in response, took issue with Stoughton’s noncompliance with the attorney’s insistence on yes-or-no answers to his questions. 

Gray and Engh also objected to Stoughton’s suggestion that allowing Wright to flee and be captured another day would have been one possible course of action for Potter and her fellow officers. If he could testify to that, Engh said, the defense should have the opportunity to bring in evidence about Wright’s history with police. 

“The expert… has not read an inch-thick file on Daunte Wright. Every time he gets arrested, he tries to escape. Every court appearance, he misses. Every time he can get away, he can get away,” Engh said during a jury break, slamming papers against the podium. “And so now we have an expert who’s articulated that this really shouldn’t have been a lethal force matter… because eventually, we’ll find this kid. I mean, that’s his opinion. And it’s false.” 

Frank countered that after a slightly nonplussed assurance that he would not pound on the table.

“Whether [the file] is an inch thick or not, it wasn’t known to Officer Potter and it’s not relevant to this case,” he said. 

Judge Chu took a brief break to consider the issue, then decided not to admit testimony about Wright’s alleged prior flights. Gray finished his cross-examination soon afterward. 

Stoughton was followed by the day’s last witness: Daunte’s father Aubrey Wright. The elder Wright’s testimony was brief, with prosecutor Erin Eldridge asking about his relationship with his son as both father and work supervisor and about Daunte’s young son, Daunte Wright Jr. 

“I was so happy for him, because he was so happy… It was my chance to be a grandfather,” Aubrey Wright said of his son. “He was loved. I miss him a lot. Every day.”

Gray and Engh declined to cross-examine, and the jury was dismissed for the day. More evidentiary issues closed out the day, with prosecutors objecting to the defense’s eliciting of character evidence from several previous witnesses and arguing that they should be able to introduce evidence related to Potter’s position as president of her police union. 

“The state is in no way criticizing anybody for being a member or not being a member of a union,” Eldridge said. “These witnesses… may have used – or relied upon – the defendant to help them through a grievance process or looked up to her for advice.” 

“That goes to bias,” she said. 

Chu acknowledged the state’s concern about character evidence and asked Engh to cut down the list of character witnesses he planned to call. The union evidence, she said, would only be probative of bias if Potter actually represented a testifying witness, but she took the matter under advisement. 

The prosecution is expected to wrap its case Thursday morning. Potter has indicated that she plans to testify in her own defense at the trial, which Chu has said she plans to finish by Christmas.

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