Attorneys and a judge hammered out jury instructions Monday for the trial of a white Brooklyn Center police officer who fatally shot Black motorist Daunte Wright, with the judge denying defense requests that would have made the instructions more expansive for the former officer’s benefit.
Kim Potter, 49, is charged with first-degree and second-degree manslaughter in Wright’s April 11 death in Brooklyn Center, a Minneapolis suburb. Potter, who resigned two days after the shooting, has said she meant to use her Taser on Wright after he tried to drive away from officers while they were trying to arrest him, but that she grabbed her handgun instead.
Her body camera recorded the shooting.
Opening statements are scheduled for Wednesday.
Judge Regina Chu went with standard jury instructions to define second-degree manslaughter, which involves culpable negligence. For first-degree manslaughter, she said she would use language defining recklessness from jury instructions in an earlier case, which she said is the controlling law. She resisted defense efforts to substitute broader language that might have given Potter more of an advantage.
Chu said she would finalize the jury instruction on when police may use deadly force after hearing some testimony during the trial.
Chu rejected a defense request to add an instruction to note that fleeing a police officer is a violent felony. Chu said that’s not always the case. She said police officers may testify that fleeing an officer is a crime of violence.
The defense also sought to include elements of Wright’s conduct in the instructions, noting that he didn’t follow police commands, tried to flee and was driving without a license. “His conduct was unreasonable and his own negligence contributed to the tragedy here,” attorney Paul Engh said.
Chu rejected that, saying allegations of what Wright should or should not have done can come out in testimony, but won’t be in jury instructions.
Jury instructions are important because they tell jurors what the law is and how the facts of the case should be applied to the law, said Mike Brandt, a Minneapolis-area defense attorney who is not connected to the case. Generally speaking, the defense tries to broaden the instructions so that prosecutors have more to prove, while the state tries to make the instructions as narrow as possible.
Brandt said judges will generally default to the state’s standard instructions, because these have already been approved by judges from around Minnesota.
A jury of 14 people — including two alternates — will hear the case. Nine of the 12 jurors likely to deliberate are white, one is Black and two are Asian. The two alternates are white.
The jury’s racial makeup is roughly in line with the demographics of Hennepin County, which is about 74% white. But the jury is notably less diverse than the one that convicted former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin this spring in the death of George Floyd.
Potter has told the court she will testify. She could be heard on body-camera video saying, “Taser, Taser, Taser” before she fired, followed by, “I grabbed the wrong (expletive) gun.”
Wright, 20, was shot as Chauvin was standing trial 10 miles (16 kilometers) away for killing Floyd. Wright’s death sparked several nights of intense protests in the suburb.
The most serious charge against Potter requires prosecutors to prove recklessness; the lesser requires them to prove culpable negligence. Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines call for a sentence of just over seven years on the first-degree manslaughter count and four years on the second-degree one. Prosecutors have said they would seek a longer sentence.
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