Former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter was sentenced Friday to a two-year term, lower than suggested by state guidelines, for fatally shooting Daunte Wright during a traffic stop last spring.
Hennepin County District Judge Regina Chu handed down the sentence after hearing victim-impact statements from Wright's family, and arguments from the prosecution and Potter's defense this morning. Potter also spoke through sobs to Wright's family in the courtroom.
Potter will serve the first 16 months in prison and the balance on supervised release. Chu called it "a significant downward departure" from state sentencing guidelines, adding that it was "the saddest case in my 20 years on the bench."
State guidelines called for a prison term between about six years and roughly 8½ years for first-degree manslaughter for a defendant like Potter, who has no other criminal history. The presumptive term was a little more than seven years.
"I recognize there will be those who disagree with the sentence. That I granted a significant downward departure does not in any way diminish Daunte Wright's life. His life mattered," Chu said. "To those who disagree and feel a longer prison sentence is appropriate, as difficult as it may be, please try to empathize with Ms. Potter's situation."
Eventually wiping away tears, Chu said: "Officer Potter made a mistake that ended tragically. She never intended to hurt anyone."
She also drew a difference between Potter's actions vs. those of the former Minneapolis officers who were convicted in recent years of murder for killing civilians: Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd, and Mohamed Noor, who killed Justine Ruszckyk Damond.
In Potter's case, the judge said, "this is a cop who made a tragic mistake."
The two-hour proceeding ended with sheriff's deputies leading Potter from the courtroom and back to prison, where she has been kept in isolation for her own safety from other inmates. State Department of Corrections records show her anticipated release from prison is scheduled for April 24, 2023.
State Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office led the prosecution of Potter, was expected to speak to the news media after the sentencing, but instead issued a lengthy written statement that said in part that "I accept her judgment. I urge everyone to accept her judgment. I don't ask you to agree with her decision, which takes nothing away from the truth of the jury's verdict.
"I know it is hurtful to loved ones of Daunte Wright. I ask that we remember the beauty of Daunte Wright, to keep his memory in our hearts, and to know that no number of years in prison could ever capture the wonder of this young man's life. There is no cause for celebration: No one has won. We all have lost, none more than Daunte Wright and the people who love him."
Defense attorney Paul Engh expressed gratitude that his client was "shown mercy."
Wright attorney Benjamin Crump was disappointed in the sentence, saying in a statement:
"Today's sentencing of Kim Potter leaves the family of Daunte Wright completely stunned. While there is a small sense of justice because she will serve nominal time, the family is also deeply disappointed there was not a greater level of accountability. The Judge's comments at sentencing showed a clear absence of compassion for the victim in this tragedy and were devastating to the family."
Proceedings began shortly after 9 a.m., with prosecutor Matthew Frank speaking. Earlier this week, Chu was asked by prosecutors to hand down a prison term recommended by state sentencing guidelines — a request different from their previous intention to seek a longer-than-recommended term.
Jurors convicted Potter, 49, on Dec. 23 of first- and second-degree manslaughter for fatally shooting Wright once in the chest during an April 11, 2021, traffic stop. Potter will be sentenced on the higher count, per state law.
Speaking moments before being sentenced, Potter turned to the Wright family and expressed remorse and asked for forgiveness.
Katie, I understand a mother's love, and I'm sorry I broke your heart," Potter said to Wright's mother, Katie Wright, who also goes by Katie Bryant. "My heart is broken for all of you. Earlier, when you said I didn't look at you during the trial, I don't believe I had a right to. I didn't have a right to be in the same room with you. I am so sorry that I hurt you so badly. My heart is broken, devastated for all of you, and I pray for Daunte and all of you many, many times a day. He is not more than one thought away from my heart, and I have no right for that, for him to be in my heart. I do pray that one day you can find forgiveness only because hatred is so destructive to all of us. And I pray peace will always be with you and your family. I am so sorry."
She continued, "To the community of Brooklyn Center, I do owe you an apology too, I loved working for you, and I'm sorry what has happened to your community since the death of Daunte. And the men and women who work for you still are good and honorable people and will work hard for you."
Frank spelled out why Potter should be sentenced within the guidelines range, rather than something less than being sought by the defense.
"We don't doubt that Miss Potter has remorse, but this … is a courtroom full of pain and anger," Frank said. "How do we fix that? What can we do? This is a divided community. What can be done to restore some of the faith and trust between law enforcement and the community."
Frank said that Potter "is in a unique position to make something of what has happened for the benefit of a lot of people ... talking to officers about the dangers of weapons confusion … she can talk to manufacturers about this. She can talk to the Wright family, should they want."
Katie Wright was the first of his family to make victim impact statements.
"Daunte Wright is my son, my baby boy and I say 'is' and not 'was' because he will always be my son, and I'm proud to say that," she said. "I have spent many, many sleepless nights and days contemplating how and what I was going to say today, I have to be the voice for myself, my family, my community, most of all for my son Daunte."
Throughout her statement, Katie Wright referred to Potter as the defendant, because throughout trial, she said, Potter only referred to her son during trial testimony as "the driver," rather than by his name.
Katie Wright said April 11 of last year was the worst day of her life because of a police officer sworn to protect. Instead, "She took our baby boy with a single gunshot to his heart, and she shattered mine."
"I blame myself, I shouldn't have told him it was gonna be all right, I told him he was gonna be OK, only to find out a few minutes later that he wasn't," she said of her final conversation with her son, during a phone call he placed during the traffic stop.
Katie Wright said she believed Potter's remorse was only for herself, not for killing her son. She said she will continue to say her son's name, "until driving while Black is not a death sentence."
Defense attorney Engh laid out his rationale for Potter to not go to prison but be put on probation.
"This is beyond tragic for everybody involved," Engh said. "We hear clearly the statements of the family. We recognize them."
He said the probation office's report sizing up whether Potter is amenable to probation came back in his client's favor.
"That report alone," Engh said to the judge, "would provide you with the authority" to impose a probationary sentence.
He said he located research that found 60% of women facing a presumptive sentence of prison in Minnesota instead are put on probation.
He also reminded the court that "this was an unintentional crime. It was a mistake. It was an accident." Engh also repeated what the defense contended in court: that Daunte Wright was an aggressor when he tried to flee three police officers who were in the process of arresting him on an outstanding warrant in connection with an illegal weapons possession case.
Engh said that Potter remains isolated in the Shakopee women's prison for her safety, and that "all she does is spend her days getting checked every 30 minutes by a guard, making isolated phone calls, and staying in her cell." The result, he said, is a decline in mental and physical health.
"It is harming her," he said. "So we have on one hand punishment, but sending her to prison will harm her. We are not in the business of harming defendants."
Potter has the support of her family, and even strangers, Engh said, producing a box of cards from strangers.
"What happened to you could have happened to any of us," Engh read from one card from a law enforcement officer. "As a law enforcement community across the country, we are reeling."
Engh also read one from her 81-year-old mother, who wrote how much she relied on her daughter for help with everyday needs such as cleaning, paying bills and driving her around. She asked that her daughter receive probation so she can come home and continue helping her.
"Kim is my daughter, but she's also my friend," her mother wrote. "She's a good person, and it makes me sad that people are talking so terribly about her."
Arbuey Wright, Daunte's father, followed Katie Bryant. Like his wife, he also was troubled that Potter smiled for her prison mug shot taken soon after her conviction.
Engh explained Potter's smiling photo, saying, "There is no disrespect intended [with] the booking photo at Shakopee [prison]. She indicated they asked her to smile. She smiled."
Arbuey Wright said "Daunte meant the world to me, made out of the unconditional love that me and my wife have for each other. Daunte was my reason to get better, to change my life."
Noting that his son was shot in the heart, Arbuey Wright said Potter "also damaged my whole family's heart. Everything we do as a family ends in tears because all we have is the memory of my son."
Chyna Whitaker, the mother of Daunte Wright's baby son, Daunte Jr., said, I'm now a single mother, not by choice but by force."