Daunte Wright death trial. The gun vs Taser question

AP Photo/John Minchillo)

As you likely recall, Daunte Wright was killed in a police shooting on April 11 in a suburb of Minneapolis. The case drew national attention because it took place while the George Floyd riots were still going on and this was another case where the suspect was Black and the police officer was white. The officer, Kim Potter, shot Wright with her service revolver, allegedly because she had made a mistake when attempting to draw her Taser and subdue Wright using nonlethal force. Potter resigned two days later and was eventually charged with manslaughter. The trial is now underway and the key issue being debated in front of the jury thus far has been the differences between Potter’s firearm and her Taser and if it’s plausible that she could have mistaken one for the other. (Associated Press)

Prosecutors in the manslaughter trial of a Minnesota police officer put the differences between her handgun and her Taser on display for jurors, seeking to raise questions about how an experienced officer could confuse the two weapons in the shooting death of Daunte Wright.

Wright, 20, was killed April 11 after being pulled over in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center for having expired license plate tags and an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. Kim Potter, 49, is charged with manslaughter…

Sam McGinnis, a senior special agent with the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, testified Monday that Potter’s duty belt had holsters that require an officer to take deliberate actions to release the weapons.

Right from the beginning, it sounded like this was going to be a tough case for the prosecution to make, and justifiably so. In order to convince the jury to convict Potter, the state will need to convince them of several key points. The first is whether or not Potter should have been drawing any sort of a weapon at the moment of the shooting. The media has continually played up the fact that Wright was pulled over for “an expired license plate tag and having an air freshener on his mirror.” If that’s all you know about the situation, then it certainly sounds like Potter went very far over the line.

As with most of these cases, the reality is something different. Those may have been the original reasons Wright was pulled over, but the police quickly learned that he had an outstanding warrant for possession of an unregistered handgun and fleeing a police officer. That upped the ante quite a bit. Further, Wright was not cooperating with the police. He had returned to his vehicle and was preparing to flee (again), potentially dragging another officer who was on the passenger side of the vehicle. So it’s going to be tough to convince the jury that there was no justification for at least some potential use of force.

As to the mixup between the firearm and the Taser, it seems to me that there are only two arguments that the prosecution can make and they are mutually exclusive. You either believe that Potter intended to use the Taser and messed up with a lethal result or you believe that she deliberately shot and killed Wright and made up the story about the Taser to cover her tracks. Both of these are problematic. With the prosecution showing the jury how very different the release mechanisms for the two weapons are, along with the differences in weight, size, color, and feel, it almost sounds as if they are implying that Potter couldn’t possibly have made such a mistake so the shooting must have been intentional on some level.

But if you want to tell the jury that she intentionally shot Wright and lied, then why is she only being charged with manslaughter at this level? It seems as if they could have pressed for something more serious, though probably not 1st Degree Murder. Also, Potter clearly seemed to be distressed and shocked as soon as the shot was fired. If you want to argue that Potter was grossly incompetent and not well enough trained to be handling any sort of weapons, I’m not going to argue with you. The differences between the service weapon and the Taser that were shown to the jury are dramatic. But in the heat of the moment, who is to say what sort of immediate reactions were going through Potter’s mind as she rushed to pull what she presumably thought was the Taser?

With all of that said, however, if the prosecution is going to concede to the jury that Potter believed she was pulling her Taser, this really does wind up looking like precisely what the defense is claiming. It was “a horrific mistake” and a tragic accident. Does either of those add up to manslaughter in a court of law? As I said, it seems like a long bow to draw. Daunte Wright shouldn’t have died that day and Potter’s qualifications to be a police officer have been flushed down the drain. But turning this shooting into a criminal case may be a bridge too far.