The Columbus Dispatch

Experts speculate on ‘wrong gun’ plea in upcoming Wright case

- Steve Karnowski

MINNEAPOLI­S – When a suburban Minneapoli­s police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright in April, her reaction on body-camera video seemed to instantly establish the key facts of the case: “I grabbed the wrong (expletive) gun,” Kim Potter said. “I’m going to go to prison.”

But legal experts say a conviction for Potter, who said she meant to pull her Taser, isn’t as certain as it might seem – at least on the most serious charge she faces, first-degree manslaught­er. Jury selection begins Tuesday.

The shooting of Wright, a 20-yearold Black man, by the white officer sparked intense protests in Brooklyn Center just as fired officer Derek Chauvin was on trial in George Floyd’s death in nearby Minneapoli­s.

The concrete barriers, chain-link fencing and National Guard soldiers that surrounded the courthouse for that trial are gone, but enhanced security will be in place for Potter’s trial – with fewer entry points and the closure of a parking garage.

Potter, who resigned two days after the shooting, said she made a mistake when she reached for her pistol instead of her Taser. But prosecutor­s, including the leader of the team that got Chauvin convicted for murder, say Wright’s death was manslaught­er and that Potter, an experience­d officer who was trained to know better, should go to prison.

The big questions for the jury will be whether Potter’s actions rose to recklessne­ss or culpable negligence, as the law requires. Defense attorneys also argue that Wright was responsibl­e for his own death because he tried to drive off from a traffic stop and could have dragged an officer to his death if Potter hadn’t intervened.

“What we have basically is an innocent mistake,” said defense attorney Earl Gray. “That she wasn’t culpably negligent and that she didn’t cause the death of Mr. Wright. He caused his death himself.”

According to the complaint, the officer Potter was training, Anthony Luckey, told Wright they stopped him the afternoon of April 11 for the air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror and the car’s expired license plate tabs. Luckey then found an arrest warrant for a weapons violation. They went back to arrest him, joined by Sgt. Mychal Johnson.

Wright obeyed Luckey’s order to get out. But as Luckey was handcuffing him, Wright pulled away and got back in. As Luckey held onto Wright, Potter said “I’ll tase ya.” The video then shows Potter, holding her handgun in her right hand and pointing it at Wright. Again, Potter said, “I’ll tase you,” and then two seconds later: “Taser, Taser, Taser.” One second later, she fired a single bullet into Wright’s chest.

“(Expletive)! I just shot him. … I grabbed the wrong (expletive) gun,” Potter said. A minute later, she said: “I’m going to go to prison.”

Prosecutor­s allege that Potter committed first-degree manslaught­er by causing Wright’s death while committing a misdemeano­r crime, namely recklessly handling a gun, when death was reasonably foreseeabl­e. The second-degree manslaught­er count alleges that she acted with culpable negligence. Neither charge requires the intent to kill.

Prosecutor­s suggested in pretrial filings that Potter should not have even used her Taser. Police probably could have found Wright later so the officers should have let him drive away, they said.

Experts agree that drawing a firearm instead of a stun gun is rare. To avoid confusion, officers typically carry their stun guns on their weak sides, by their nondominan­t hand, and away from handguns carried on their strong side. That’s how Brooklyn Center officers are trained and how Potter had her duty belt arranged. And there are several obvious differences between the two weapons. For one thing, a Taser is yellow. A Glock is all black.

Joe Friedberg, a local defense attorney who isn’t connected to the case, said Wright’s attempt to drive off when Johnson was partly inside the car would have been sufficient grounds for Potter to shoot and kill him intentiona­lly – and that is enough to acquit.

Mike Brandt, another attorney not connected with the case, saw it differently. He said it’s clear Potter mishandled a firearm – an element of the firstdegree manslaught­er charge – though the jury might struggle with whether she did so recklessly. The “culpable negligence,” or taking an unreasonab­le risk, is easier to prove, making second-degree manslaught­er more likely, Brandt said.

In one of the best-known cases of grabbing a gun instead of a Taser, a transit officer in Oakland, California, killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant in 2009. Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison for involuntar­y manslaught­er.

Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris, who won a $2.8 million settlement for Grant’s family, said Taser mixups have dwindled since police across the country stepped up stun-gun training after Grant’s death.

Burris said he thinks Potter had the right to use reasonable force and could get credit from the jury for intending to use her Taser. And if that happens, he said, the best the prosecutio­n might get is a conviction on the lesser charge. But if the jury agrees she should not have used her Taser at all, he added, they might find it was first-degree manslaught­er.

Attorneys are expected to screen jurors closely for their attitudes on the sometimes destructiv­e protests that occurred in Minneapoli­s after Floyd’s death. Questionna­ires sent to potential jurors asked about their views of those protests and others over the past two years, as well as whether they participat­ed, had been injured or suffered property damage, or knew anyone who had.

Similar questionna­ires were used in the Chauvin trial, where jury selection took 11 days, and his attorney repeatedly asked potential jurors whether they could deliver a fair verdict.

The trial timeline for Potter sets aside at least six days for jury selection, with opening statements no sooner than Dec. 8.

Zaynab Mohamed, community advocacy manager for the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-islamic Relations, was among the activists who repeatedly demonstrat­ed outside the home of the county prosecutor who originally had Potter’s case to demand murder charges be filed. Instead the prosecutor eventually handed the case over to Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office.

Mohamed said people are “more energized than they ever were.” She said an acquittal for Potter would mean another outpouring.

“I think there will be a level of anger, and people will take to the streets like they did after the murder of George Floyd,” she said.

 ?? CHRISTIAN MONTERROSA/AP FILE ?? Jury selection begins Tuesday for the trial of the former police officer accused of killing Daunte Wright .
CHRISTIAN MONTERROSA/AP FILE Jury selection begins Tuesday for the trial of the former police officer accused of killing Daunte Wright .
 ?? JOHN MINCHILLO/AP FILE ?? The big questions for the jury will be whether Kim Potter’s actions rose to recklessne­ss or culpable negligence, as the law requires.
JOHN MINCHILLO/AP FILE The big questions for the jury will be whether Kim Potter’s actions rose to recklessne­ss or culpable negligence, as the law requires.

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