By AMY FORLITI and SCOTT BAUER
Updated: December 23, 2021 08:20 PM
Created: December 22, 2021 10:41 PM
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - A suburban Minneapolis police officer who said she confused her handgun for her Taser was convicted of manslaughter Thursday in the death of Daunte Wright, prompting tears from the young Black man's parents and a jubilant celebration by supporters outside the courthouse who chanted "Guilty, guilty, guilty!"
The mostly white jury deliberated for about 27 hours over four days before finding former Brooklyn Center Officer Kim Potter guilty of first-degree and second-degree manslaughter. Potter, 49, faces about seven years in prison under the state's sentencing guidelines, but prosecutors said they would seek a longer term.
Judge Regina Chu ordered Potter taken into custody and held without bail pending sentencing on Feb. 18. Potter had been free on $100,000 bond posted the day last April that she was charged, which was three days after she killed Wright and a day after she quit the police force.
As she was led away in handcuffs, a Potter family member in the courtroom shouted "Love you, Kim!" Potter's attorneys left the courthouse without commenting and didn't immediately respond to phone messages or emails.
It was the second high-profile conviction of a police officer won this year by a team led by Attorney General Keith Ellison, including some of the same attorneys who helped convict Derek Chauvin in George Floyd's death in the very same courtroom just eight months earlier.
Wright was killed while that trial was happening not far away, and it set off a wave of angry protests outside the police station in Brooklyn Center, where demonstrators demanding "Justice for Daunte" clashed with officers in riot gear for several nights.
Outside the courthouse Thursday, dozens of people who had gathered erupted in cheers, hugs and tears of joy as the verdicts were read. A New Orleans-style jazz band played "When the Saints Go Marching In." Two men jumped up and down holding one another's shoulders, and then other people began jumping up and down and chanting "Guilty, guilty, guilty!"
They chanted "Say his name! Daunte Wright!" Some held yellow signs that said "guilty" in large block letters.
Potter, who testified that she "didn't want to hurt anybody," looked down without any visible reaction when the verdicts were read. As Chu thanked the jury, Potter made the sign of the cross.
Potter's attorneys argued that she should be allowed to remain free until she's sentenced, saying she wasn't going to commit another crime or go anywhere.
"It is the Christmas holiday season," Potter attorney Paul Engh argued. "She's a devoted Catholic, no less, and there is no point to incarcerate her at this point in time."
Chu rejected their arguments, though, saying she "cannot treat this case any differently than any other case."
Though Potter showed no visible emotion in court as the verdicts were read, she was photographed smiling in a mug shot taken later as she was processed at a women's prison near Minneapolis.
After Potter was led from the courtroom, prosecutor Erin Eldridge exchanged a long hug with a tearful Katie Bryant, Wright's mother and a frequent presence at the trial, and with Wright's father. Ellison also exchanged hugs with the parents.
Outside the courthouse afterward, Ellison said the verdict brought a measure of accountability for Potter but fell short of justice.
"Justice would be restoring Daunte to life and making the Wright family whole again," Ellison said. "Justice is beyond the reach that we have in this life for Daunte. But accountability is an important step, a critical necessary step on the road to justice for us all."
Ellison said he felt sympathy for Potter, who has gone from being an "esteemed member of the community" to being convicted of a serious crime.
Wright's mother hugged Ellison and said the verdicts triggered "every single emotion that you could imagine."
"Today we have gotten accountability and that's what we've been asking for from the beginning," Katie Bryant said, crediting supporters for keeping up pressure.
"We love you, we appreciate you, and honestly, we could not have done it without you," she said.
The time-stamps on the verdicts showed that jurors agreed on the second count on Tuesday, before they asked the judge that afternoon what to do if they were having difficulty agreeing. The guilty verdict on the more serious first-degree count was reached at 11:40 a.m. Thursday.
Potter, who is white, shot and killed the 20-year-old Wright during an April 11 traffic stop in Brooklyn Center as she and other officers were trying to arrest him on an outstanding warrant for a weapons possession charge. The shooting happened at a time of high tension in the area, with Chauvin standing trial in nearby Minneapolis for Floyd's death.
Jurors saw video of the shooting from police body cameras and dashcams. As Wright pulled away while another officer attempted to handcuff him, Potter repeatedly said she would tase him, but instead shot him once in his chest with her gun, which was in her hand.
"(Expletive)! I just shot him. ... I grabbed the wrong (expletive) gun," Potter said on video shown to the jury. Moments later, she said: "I'm going to go to prison."
During her sometimes tearful testimony, Potter told jurors that she was "sorry it happened." She said the traffic stop "just went chaotic."
The maximum prison sentence for first-degree manslaughter is 15 years. Minnesota law sentences defendants only on their most serious conviction when multiple counts involve the same act and the same victim, and state guidelines call for about seven years on that charge.
Prosecutors have said they would seek to prove aggravating factors that merit what's called an upward departure from sentencing guidelines. In Potter's case, they alleged that her actions were a danger to others, including her fellow officers, to Wright's passenger and to the couple whose car was struck by Wright's after the shooting. They also alleged she abused her authority as a police officer.
Potter's attorneys argued that she made a tragic mistake, but that she also would have been justified in using deadly force because of the possibility that Potter's fellow officer, then-Sgt. Mychal Johnson, was at risk of being dragged if Wright had driven away from the traffic stop.
Potter testified that she decided to act after seeing a look of fear on Johnson's face. But Eldridge pointed out to jurors that for much of the interaction, Potter was behind a third officer she was training and that Johnson didn't come into her camera's view until after the shot was fired - and then it showed the top of his head as he backed away.
"Sgt. Johnson was clearly not afraid of being dragged," Eldridge said. "He never said he was scared. He didn't say it then, and he didn't testify to it in court."
Eldridge also noted an inconsistency in Potter's testimony, saying that when she gave an interview to a psychologist working for the defense team, she told him she didn't know why she used her Taser. Potter told the jury she didn't recall saying that.
First-degree manslaughter required prosecutors to prove that Potter caused Wright's death while committing a misdemeanor - in her case, the reckless handling of a firearm. The second-degree charge required them to prove that she caused Wright's death by "culpable negligence."
Bauer reported from Madison, Wisconsin. Associated Press writers Mohamed Ibrahim in Minneapolis and Kathleen Foody in Chicago contributed to this report.
Find the AP's full coverage of the Daunte Wright case: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-daunte-wright
This story has been corrected to delete a reference to Potter pulling out her gun after she shouted a Taser warning. Body camera video shows her gun was already in her hand at the time.
(Copyright 2021 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)