Daunte Wright died on April 11 after he was pulled over by Brooklyn Center police and then mortally wounded by an officer. Barely a month later, the prosecution of Kim Potter, the former officer charged in Wright's death, has bounced between three prosecutors' offices and appears to have triggered the resignation of the Washington County Attorney's assistant criminal division chief.
In a May 24 letter obtained by KARE-11, Imran Ali, a two-time Minnesota "Attorney of the Year" cited "vitriol" and the "infusion of partisan politics by many" among the reasons for his departure. He had been Washington County Attorney Pete Orput's co-counsel in the case, and he left just days after the office gave the case back to the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, which then referred it to the Minnesota Attorney General.
Ali's resignation and the shuffling of the case raises disturbing questions about whether this high-profile case is in disarray. These concerns only deepen when the lead prosecutors shut down questions about Ali's allegations.
Who is responsible for the "vitriol" and "partisan politics?" Why did Ali say that his family's life had recently become difficult and believe that his only option was leaving after 10 years on the job?
Potter has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. Protesters demanding an upgrade of the charges to murder have made their demands known at Orput's Stillwater home. Did Ali fear something similar at his own? Ali did not respond to an editorial writer's interview requests. Nor were lead prosecutors willing to answer questions about what happened.
In a phone call with an editorial writer on Wednesday, Orput said, "I choose not to" talk about the Potter prosecution. He acknowledged that normally he's transparent about how his office handles cases, but said, "I want nothing to do with it anymore" and that "I've had enough of the case."
In response to an editorial writer's query, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said through a spokesman that he would not be available for comment. A spokesman for Attorney General Keith Ellison responded by highlighting a portion of a May 21 statement: "I did not seek this prosecution and do not accept it lightly. I have had, and continue to have, confidence in how both County Attorney Orput and County Attorney Freeman have handled this case to date."
The lack of transparency would be troubling anywhere. That it's happening in Minnesota is deeply disappointing. It was only last month when the world held its collective breath as a Twin Cities jury deliberated the fate of Derek Chauvin and then found him guilty of George Floyd's 2020 murder.
Despite the harrowing video of Floyd's death, it was still unclear whether Chauvin would be held accountable for this fatal abuse of force. It's hoped that the Chauvin verdict will help rebuild trust in the criminal justice system. Questions about prosecution of the Potter case undermine this needed confidence.
It's important to note that the initial transfer of the case from Hennepin County to Washington County was by design. Last June, five metro county attorneys (Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington) signed an agreement about cases involving police use of deadly force.
To avoid the perception of conflicts of interest (since county prosecutors routinely work closely with local law enforcement), the prosecutors agreed to have another county undertake review and possible prosecution of these cases.
The agreement ends June 1, unless the Legislature accepts the recommendation in the agreement that "these case(s) in the future will be undertaken by the Attorney General's Office." The Minnesota County Attorneys Association has also weighed in on this issue, voting last summer to support transferring jurisdiction to the attorney general.
So far, lawmakers have not acted. They should. Tough, experienced prosecutors — Orput served as a U.S. Marine — are sending an alarming signal about the politics and potentially personal backlash involved in handling cases like this after Floyd's death. Swift, serious scrutiny of reforms is reasonable and best serves the interest of justice.