MINNEAPOLIS — The prosecution in the Kimberly Potter manslaughter trial alleged in its opening statement Wednesday, Dec. 8, that the former Brooklyn Center police officer had her gun drawn on Daunte Wright for more than five seconds before she fatally shot him, while the defense countered that she feared her partner would be killed when she mistook the weapon for a Taser.
Potter, 49, is charged in Hennepin County District Court with first- and second-degree manslaughter in connection with the death of Wright on April 11.
"This case is about the defendant, Kimberly Potter, betraying her badge, betraying her oath and betraying the position of public trust," prosecutor Erin Eldridge said in her opening statement. "And on April 11th of this year she betrayed a 20-year-old kid, she pulled out her firearm, she pointed it at his chest and she shot and killed Daunte Wright."
Referring to Potter's contention that she meant to shoot Wright with a Taser on her left hip but drew her handgun with her right hand, Eldridge told the jurors, "We expect not to be shot dead on the street for no reason. … We trust wrong from right and left from right."
Eldridge said that Potter "failed to get it right."
Paul Engh, making the defense opening statement, countered: "She made a mistake. This was an accident. She's a human being. ... She believed that she possessed a Taser. That's why she said 'Taser! Taser! Taser!' She didn't say 'Gun! Gun! Gun!'"
Engh noted that a fellow officer was inside the vehicle and struggling with Wright as he tried to drive away upon learning he was being arrested for an outstanding warrant in connection with a firearms offense. In addition to the warrant, Engh said the officers smelled marijuana and Wright had no license, along with an active restraining order taken out against him.
"Mr. Wright can't escape, and she knows that if he's not stopped, he's about to drive away with a police officer dangling from his car," the defense attorney said. "And she knows if she does nothing, Mr. Wright drives away and either potentially harms Sgt. Johnson or likely kills him.
"So when she says 'Taser! Taser! Taser!' there's one last pause, Mr. Wright can stop, all he has to do is stop. But he goes. She can't let him leave, because he's gonna kill her partner. so she yells 'Taser Taser Taser,' and she pulls the trigger believing that it was a Taser."
The prosecution, while outlining its version of what happened during the traffic stop, rolled a brief video from one of the squad cars that showed how the officers went about trying to arrest Wright.
Potter drew her gun "with her finger on the trigger," Eldridge said.
"I'll tase you!" Potter was heard on the video rolling in the courtroom. "Taser! Taser! Taser!"
For 5 1/2 seconds, the gun was aimed at Wright, Eldridge said, before Potter "aims, pulls the trigger and fires into his chest."
Eldridge said the fact that Potter didn't mean to kill Wright was irrelevant.
"It's not about intent to kill; that's not why you're here today," Eldridge said. " ... No one will say that [Potter] wanted this to happen, and no one is even saying that she meant to shoot him with her gun. But the evidence will show that's what she did: She fired her gun at point-blank range into Daunte Wright's chest."
Eldridge spelled out the years of training Potter received and manufacturer warnings about Taser use and the deadly potential of drawing a firearm instead.
"The defendant flouted that training," the prosecutor said, pointing out that Potter went through her most recent review about six weeks before Wright was shot.
Eldridge closed with a photo of Wright's bloodied jean jacket on display. On the front was the word "Heartbreaker" in large, red letters.
"The defendant shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old who had an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror," she said, "a kid in a heartbreaker jean jacket. But ... Daunte Wright was not the heartbreaker, it was Daunte Wright who had his heart broken, and it was the defendant who broke Daunte Wright's heart when she fired a hollow-point bullet straight into his chest."
In his opening statement, Engh spelled out that police on the scene learned increasingly concerning details about Wright, and this was not a traffic stop about an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror.
They also determined that his vehicle registration tabs were expired, his driver's license was suspended, the warrant for his arrest and a court order for protection taken out by a woman against him.
"A court order directed [Officer Anthony Luckey] to arrest him," Engh said, his voice rising as he pounded the podium. "This is standard police work here."
"Ms. Potter's good name has been besmirched by this allegation which is not true, and by press coverage which has been slanted, and we seek to reclaim it," Engh said. "And reclaim it we will."
Among the key moments in the trial, which is expected to last into late December and is being broadcast on a livestream, are the showing of police bodycam video of the encounter and Potter's testimony when the defense presents its case.
Wright was stopped for expired vehicle registration tabs, and police discovered that he had a warrant for his arrest for a gross misdemeanor weapons charge. Bodycam video showed him pulling away from an officer trying to handcuff him and jumping into his car.
Potter's defense has argued that one of Potter's colleagues standing on the other side of Wright's car could have been fatally dragged as he attempted to flee.
"He didn't follow police orders," Engh said in court Monday as attorneys debated the details of the jury instructions that Judge Regina Chu will give jurors on how to apply the law. "He had marijuana and the odor of marijuana in his car. ... His own negligence contributed to the tragedy here."
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