MINNEAPOLIS – Jurors at the manslaughter trial of Kim Potter have been getting two versions of the white former suburban Minneapolis police officer, who says she made a tragic mistake when she fired her handgun instead of her Taser and killed Black motorist Daunte Wright.
Prosecutors have portrayed the longtime Brooklyn Center officer as an experienced police veteran who should have known better and who made the situation worse by failing to try to help Wright or even to quickly radio in what happened so others might help him.
The defense would like jurors to see the person who became interested in policing when she was in grade school and who raised two sons while balancing a career in which she took a special interest in helping domestic abuse victims and had never fired her gun or Taser in the line of duty before she shot Wright on April 11.
Soon, Potter herself will take the stand in an effort to reinforce the second image — a gamble that might be critical if she is to persuade the jury to acquit her of the two manslaughter charges she faces.
Susan Gaertner, a former chief prosecutor in neighboring Ramsey County who is now a defense lawyer, said it's important for any defendant to come across as genuine.
“If they can tell their story in their own voice, and their demeanor and approach is believable, that can be extremely helpful,” said Gaertner, who isn't connected to the case. "I think juries, perhaps just subconsciously, but they want to hear from the defendant directly. They want the defendant to sit in the witness stand under oath and look them in the eye and say, ‘This is what happened.’”
The jury has already gotten a preview of what Potter’s testimony is likely to cover. In his opening statement, defense attorney Paul Engh described her as a 49-year-old mother of two sons — a Marine and a college hockey player.
The bicycle safety talk she heard in grade school piqued an interest in policing that blossomed in high school, when she took part in a police explorer program, Engh said. After becoming an officer, she served in an honor guard for police killed in the line of duty and was president of the police union.
Potter was good at de-escalating conflicts and that's what she was trying to do when she warned Wright repeatedly that she was about to use her Taser on him, Engh said. She hoped that he would stop trying to get away from officers, he said.
“She was good at de-escalating everything,” Engh said. "And here that’s what she’s trying to do. ‘I’ll tase you,’ which is another way of saying, ‘Please stop so I don’t have to hurt you. Please stop.’ So that’s who she is.”
The jury has repeatedly seen videos, including from Potter’s own body camera, showing that she was inconsolable after realizing she had shot Wright. She wailed uncontrollably, “Oh my God. Oh my God!” before crumpling over on the curb.
Pool reports from inside the courtroom say that Potter has frequently cried as the videos of the shooting and the aftermath have been played.
Some clues to Potter's likely testimony might be gleaned from an interview she gave to the Minneapolis Star Tribune shortly before the trial. In it, she cried while describing how she struggles with the events of that day.
“I’m a good person, and I valued him in life,” Potter said of Wright. “The aftermath of that day has destroyed me. I pray for him every day. I pray for the Wright family every day.”
She also told the newspaper that she didn’t like doing traffic stops, which sometimes led to criticism from her superiors.
“There’s a lot of poverty,” she said. “Giving someone a ticket and towing their car away doesn’t help them get out of the situation they’re in. I liked to educate people and talk to them.”
Potter's testimony will expose her to cross-examination from prosecutors that could hurt her. They've already indicated a willingness to go at her hard, including when prosecutor Erin Eldridge used her opening statement to say Potter had “betrayed her badge and she failed Daunte Wright.”
Eldridge hammered at the idea that Potter should have known better, saying she had been on the police force longer than Wright had been alive, and that she had gone through years of training and was actually training another officer when she shot Wright.
“What did she show him? She showed him how to kill someone," Eldridge said.
Eldridge's colleague, Matthew Frank, reacted with ridicule when Potter's attorneys were questioning a witness and noted that she had been marked as “exceeds expectations” in performance evaluations.
When Frank got the chance to question the witness again, he asked: “Does it exceed expectations to draw a gun and shoot somebody to death instead of their Taser?"
Eldridge said during her opening statement that Potter handled her firearm recklessly and disregarded the known risks — themes that prosecutors have honed in on throughout the trial. Eldridge said this case is about “an officer who knew she could kill someone if she got it wrong, but she failed to make sure she got it right.”
Find the AP’s full coverage of the Daunte Wright case: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-daunte-wright