Former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter made her first court appearance Thursday in the killing of Daunte Wright, facing one count of second-degree manslaughter.
Potter, wearing a plaid shirt at her hearing and seated at a conference table in attorney Earl Gray's office, spoke only once to confirm that she could hear the judge.
When asked if court documents accurately gave Potter's home address in Champlin, Gray responded: "Yes, unfortunately." Potter's family has moved out of the house, according to Champlin Police Chief Ty Schmidt, who said he plans to keep a round-the-clock police presence there.
Potter, a 26-year police veteran who is white, is accused of shooting Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who was killed shortly after he was pulled over for driving with expired tabs, according to police. She fired a Glock 9mm handgun after indicating in the moments before the shooting that she was going to use her Taser.
The hearing, held over a Zoom call before Hennepin County District Judge Paul Scoggin, lasted about five minutes. Scoggin set a court date of May 17 for the next hearing, to be held in person before District Judge Regina Chu.
Ben Crump, the attorney for the families of Wright and George Floyd, said that the manslaughter charges against Potter marked some progress for racial justice and police accountability.
"It's a long journey to justice," said Crump, who was heading to the funeral home with Wright's family to view his body for the first time.
"We have to remember, not so long ago they weren't charging any police officer for killing a Black person. So we're making progress in America. Are we at a point where we can say it's equality? Oh, we're a long way from that."
Potter's single manslaughter charge drew some criticism when compared with the murder charges filed against a Minneapolis police officer who shot and killed a woman four years ago.
While second-degree manslaughter carries a likely four-year prison sentence, former Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor — who is Black — is serving a 12 ½-year sentence after being convicted of third-degree murder along with second-degree manslaughter in the 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who was white.
"I understand why people are frustrated, why they look at what Noor was charged with and they see what [Potter] was charged with," said Mary Moriarty, former chief public defender for Hennepin County.
It can't be ignored, she said, that the first police officer ever convicted of murder in Minnesota — Noor — was Black, and the victim was white. In the Brooklyn Center shooting, the reverse is true.
"People are very aware of that and they are angry, and they are going to compare it," she said.
Wright's attorneys and family said they believed that race was the clear difference in the charges against Noor and Potter.
A District Court judge denied a request from media representatives to broadcast Potter's court appearance after she objected, though the hearing was still viewable via the public Zoom link.
Debate over charges
Interviews with several Twin Cities criminal defense attorneys on Thursday found no consensus over whether Potter was appropriately charged by Washington County Attorney Pete Orput. Several said Potter was undercharged, while others said Orput got it right.
Fred Bruno, a defense attorney who has frequently represented police officers for four decades, said he didn't believe Potter committed a crime.
"She did not consciously discharge her firearm, so there is no intent to do that," Bruno said. "In Minnesota, with very few exceptions, accident is a complete defense to a crime."
Bruno said he has represented at least three officers in accidental gun discharge cases, two of which resulted in death. In all three cases, the officer was found not guilty.
"Noor intended to shoot his firearm," Bruno said. "She did not." But he added he believed Noor should have been convicted of no more than second-degree manslaughter.
Both made mistakes
Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said that both Noor and Potter made mistakes. Noor pulled a gun as Damond approached his squad car and fired without determining what she was doing, he said, while Potter fired her gun when she apparently thought it was her Taser.
Daly said that Orput probably felt he could not prove Potter had a depraved mind, required for a third-degree murder conviction under state law, because she was trying to arrest Wright as he tried to flee. On the other hand, he said, Noor could be judged to have a depraved mind because he committed an "eminently dangerous" act under the statute by firing without checking to see who he was shooting at.
Under state law, someone found guilty of second-degree manslaughter has shown "culpable negligence whereby the person creates an unreasonable risk and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another."
Daly said he believed Orput decided that Potter was culpably negligent because she was a 26-year police veteran who had been trained in the use of Tasers and guns, knew she carried them on opposite sides of her body and that they felt different. He said she created an unreasonable risk and consciously took the chance of causing someone's death.
Joe Friedberg, a longtime criminal defense attorney who used to represent police officers, said that in the Noor case the trial judge should never have given the jury the option of charging him with third-degree murder. It was upheld by the state Court of Appeals on a 2-1 vote and is now before the state Supreme Court.
"The difference between the two cases is that Noor intentionally shot a firearm and it appears Potter unintentionally shot a firearm," Friedberg said. "I think Pete Orput did the responsible thing. He charged the officer with what he believed the officer did — no more, no less."
Another criminal defense attorney, Albert Goins, noted that Noor was acquitted of intentional second-degree murder and sentenced for third-degree murder rather than his less serious conviction for second-degree manslaughter. He and many lawyers were surprised, he said, that the appellate court upheld the third-degree murder charge against Noor.
"For years in Minnesota, the law was that murder three only applied when you had no particular target in mind but showed a complete disregard for human life," he said.
But Goins said he believed Potter was undercharged and that she should instead face first-degree manslaughter, which applies to someone who "recklessly handles or uses a gun or other dangerous weapon or explosive as to endanger the safety of another."
Michael Brandt, a criminal defense attorney in Anoka, said he also believes Potter was undercharged and that she should face third-degree murder charges. In both this case and Noor's, he said, "it was affirmative conduct by the defendant that caused the death as opposed to negligence or culpable negligence. ... If you are going to hold Noor to this higher degree of culpability of murder, then Potter should be held to that higher degree as well."
Crump demurred Thursday when asked whether he believed Potter intentionally shot Wright with her gun despite yelling "Taser, taser, taser!" But he spoke of videos he'd posted on Instagram of young white men assaulting police and not getting shot.
"I don't know what's in her heart," Crump said of Potter. "What I do know is she used excessive force. Because he didn't really need to be Tased. You look at those videos of those white young men challenging, attacking, assaulting ... police. They did not shoot them. They did not use Tasers on them. ... In some of the videos, the police actually retreat. They run from the white men.
"So why is it, in every instance, the police engage in the most excessive force with Black people? When they overpolice us, when they use the most force, it has deadly consequences for us and our children."
Wright's attorneys disputed that the shooting was really a mistake, as Brooklyn Center police have characterized it. "What did happen was an intentional, deliberate act of force that began with an intentional, pretextual stop and ended with the intentional pulling of the trigger," said Jeff Storms, another of the Wright family's attorneys.
Naisha Wright, Daunte Wright's aunt, held up photographs of a black Glock 17 pistol and a yellow Taser X26P.
"Y'all see the difference!" Wright said. "Justice? What is justice? Will we get to see Daunte's smile? We don't get to see that. The highest accountability? I know the highest is going to be judged by God. But can we get a conviction? Can we get something?"
Moriarty said she needed to see more of the evidence before offering an opinion on what charges were appropriate. She said that Orput can add more charges later — or may have already concluded that manslaughter was the only proper charge.
"It is entirely possible he wanted to charge quickly so that people in the community would see that she is going to be held accountable," she said.
Staff librarian John Wareham contributed to this report.