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Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu
In this image from video, Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu presides over jury selection Nov. 30 in the trial of former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter in the April 11, 2021, death of Daunte Wright, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis. (Court TV via AP)

Was Taser mix-up manslaughter?

Charges, potential penalties facing Potter in Wright’s death

A white Brooklyn Center police officer charged with manslaughter in the death of Daunte Wright, a Black man, said she meant to use her Taser to try to stop him from fleeing during an attempted arrest but accidentally grabbed her gun instead.

Jury selection for Kim Potter’s trial began Tuesday. When prosecutors begin presenting their case next week, they’ll argue that Potter, who quit the Brooklyn Center police force two days after the shooting, committed first- and second-degree manslaughter when she killed the 20-year-old Black man during an April 11 traffic stop. Here’s a look at the charges and potential penalties:

The charges

Under Minnesota law, first-degree manslaughter in this case means prosecutors allege that Potter caused Wright’s death while committing the misdemeanor of the “reckless handling or use of a firearm so as to endanger the safety of another with such force and violence that death or great bodily harm to any person was reasonably foreseeable.”

The second-degree manslaughter charge alleges that she caused his death “by her culpable negligence, whereby Kimberly Potter caused an unreasonable risk and consciously took a chance of causing death or great bodily harm to Daunte Demetrius Wright, while using or possessing a firearm.”

Neither charge requires prosecutors to prove Potter intended to kill Wright.

The attorney general’s office added the first-degree manslaughter charge after it took over the case, though it fell short of the murder charge that Wright’s family and activists wanted.

The facts

According to the complaint, the Potter was training officer Anthony Luckey and told Wright they stopped him for the air freshener hanging from his car’s rearview mirror and because the car had expired license plate tabs. But Luckey ran a check and found that Wright had an outstanding arrest warrant for a weapons violation, so the officers returned to Wright’s car to arrest him.

Wright obeyed Luckey’s order to get out, but as Luckey was handcuffing him, Wright pulled away and got back in. As Luckey held onto Wright, Potter said “I’ll tase ya.” Potter’s body camera video then shows her holding her handgun in her right hand and pointing it at Wright. Potter repeated “I’ll tase you,” and then two seconds later said “Taser, Taser, Taser.” One second later, she fired a single bullet into Wright’s chest.

“[Expletive]! I grabbed the wrong [expletive] gun,” Potter is heard saying. “I’m going to go to prison.”

Potential penalties

The maximum for first-degree manslaughter is 15 years; for second-degree, it’s 10 years. But Minnesota judges follow sentencing guidelines that normally call for less — just over seven years for first-degree, and four years for second-degree.

But prosecutors have said they’ll seek a longer sentence due to aggravating factors, which is what they did in former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial for killing George Floyd.

The longest sentences that could conceivably stick on appeal are double the top of the guidelines range. But that’s more than the statutory maximum of 15 years for first-degree manslaughter, so 15 years would be the cap for Potter if she’s convicted. The realistic maximum on the lesser charge would be 9½ years.

Presuming good behavior, Minnesota offenders typically serve two-thirds of their time in prison and one-third on supervised release.

Recent precedents

The judge in Chauvin’s case sentenced him to 22½ years for second-degree unintentional murder. The presumptive sentence was 12½ years. But Judge Peter Cahill found several aggravating factors, including that Chauvin abused his position of authority and treated Floyd with particular cruelty, and that several children witnessed the crime live. He also said Chauvin knew that kneeling on Floyd’s neck was dangerous.

More recently, Judge Kathryn Quaintance resentenced former Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor to four years and nine months in prison for second-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of Justine Damond Ruszczyk, which was at the top of the guidelines’ range. She said she did so because Noor shot “across the nose” of his partner and endangered others. She couldn’t sentence him to more because prosecutors didn’t request an “upward departure” from the sentencing guidelines.

Quaintance originally sentenced Noor to 12½ years for third-degree murder, which was what the guidelines called for, but the Minnesota Supreme Court later clarified the definition of third-degree murder and sent the case back for resentencing only on the manslaughter charge.

 

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