Legal analyst breaks down emotional first day of testimony in Potter trial
The defense called it a "mistake."
Prosecutors argued she “betrayed her badge."
Testimony in the trial of former Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kimberly Potter started Wednesday with opening statements.
“This case is about this defendant Kimberly Potter betraying her badge and betraying her oath, and betraying her position of public trust, and on Apr. 11 of this year, she betrayed a 20-year-old kid,” said Assistant Attorney General Erin Eldridge.
Potter is charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter for shooting and killing Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in April. In body camera video seen around the world, Potter is heard yelling "taser" repeatedly before discharging her service weapon.
“No one is even saying that she meant to shoot him with her gun but the evidence will show that’s what she did,” said Eldridge.
Over the course of an hour, she outlined the state’s case to the jury. Eldridge emphasized Potter’s training over her 26 years on the force.
"She had been trained year, after year, after year to prevent this kind of thing from happening but she did it anyway," said Eldridge. “There’s no do-over when you take a young man’s life.”
Paul Engh presented the opening statement for the defense, which lasted about 30 minutes. He detailed Potter’s early interest in law enforcement and family life.
“The most dangerous thing a police officer will do is respond to a traffic stop or an act of domestic violence,” said Engh.
He told the jury that Potter is “a human being” and made a mistake when she used her gun instead of her TASER.
“One of the issues for you [the jury], or key issue in the case for you, is what was her conscious thought as to whether or not she had a Taser or whether or not she had a gun,” said Engh. "If she believed she had a TASER when she did that then she did not have an awareness of possessing a gun.”
He also told the jury that Officer Anthony Luckey, who was being trained by Potter, and a sergeant who responded to the scene were at risk due to their positions inside the vehicle.
“If she does nothing, Mr. Wright drives away and either substantially harms Sgt. Johnson or more likely kills him,” said Engh.
The defense also presented an argument for the jury, which places blame on Wright.
“All Mr. Wright had to do was surrender on the warrant,” said Engh, during his opening statement.
It’s a common defense during officer-involved trials, according to University of Saint Thomas School of Law Associate Professor Rachel Moran.
“We often hear the lawyers say, if he just obeyed he’d be alive, this wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “That’s coming through strong in Kim Potter’s defense.”
As for the state’s opening statement, Moran said, “The state made that theory clear that Kim Potter may be very sorry for what happened but it doesn’t excuse what happened and it doesn’t make her not guilty of the offenses.”
Moran said the opening statements were about even in terms of effectiveness.
“I think both sides, in a way, have a bit of a task ahead of them persuading the jury this could be a very close case,” she said.
During the afternoon, the state called its first witness: Katie Bryant, who is Wright’s mother. Bryant testified Wright called her during the traffic stop.
“He sounded really nervous but I reassured him it would be okay,” said Bryant.
The jury learned Wright was instructed to put his phone down on the dashboard by Officer Luckey. Wright complied.
His mother described the call ending and calling back several times.
“Then a female answered the phone because it was FaceTime, and she was screaming,” said Bryant. “I was like ‘What’s wrong?’ and she said ‘They shot him’ and faced the phone towards the driver’s seat and my son was laying there. He was unresponsive.”
Bryant rushed to the scene. State prosecutors showed the jury never-before-seen video of Bryant’s arrival and informed the officers she encountered about what happened, and urged them to let her see her son.
She told the jury she remained on the scene for 8-9 hours.
“I didn’t want to leave until he left,” said Bryant, who recognized her son’s sneakers under the white sheet covering him. “I wanted to protect him because that’s what mothers do, you protect your children.”
Moran explained Byrant was what’s called a “spark of life” witness in Minnesota.
“The state does want the jury to understand Daunte Wright as a human and the loss of his life is a tragedy,” said Moran. “That’s primarily what his mother is there to do. She has a little bit to say about hearing the phone call, she has a little bit to say about responding to the scene but mostly what she’s there to do is remind those 14 members of the jury this is a really young man, ‘he was my son I loved him and he’s gone because of this officer.’”
The jury also heard from Officer Luckey. He testified he saw Wright’s vehicle use a right turn signal in a left turning lane and then hesitate. He recounted how he ran the plates and saw the registration tabs were expired, then he saw the air freshener hanging on the rearview mirror, which is a violation.
Luckey told the jury that during the stop, he did not observe a weapon on Wright or in the vehicle and that Wright cooperated until he tried to put handcuffs on him.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank asked, “the amount of force you chose to use was placing your hands on Mr. Wright and trying to pull him out of the vehicle and shut the car off?” Luckey responded, “yes.”
During the state’s questioning, Luckey said he was still trying to gain control of Wright when he heard “TASER”.
“I just saw a flash, smoke,” he told prosecutors. “When I pulled back, that’s when the round went off."
Luckey confirmed to the defense that he was in “a vulnerable position if [Wright] drives away.”
On behalf of the defense, Engh asked Luckey whether he would’ve used a taser “if you could have” and Luckey responded “With that situation, yes”.
During his testimony, the jury also saw the video of Potter’s reaction after she fires her weapon. It shows Potter crying, distraught, and at one point lying on the ground.
Luckey confirmed in court that she said, “I’m going to prison.”
“Officer Luckey was very stoic,” said Moran. “He gave nothing away in terms of whether he believed his training officer had acted inappropriately. He was there under subpoena, of course, but I think he helped the state in that he testified that this was largely a peaceful encounter. Also, his body cameras shows that he was handling this situation just fine until those last few seconds.”
Moran said the jurors will likely walk away from day one of testimony with a sense of the tragedy that occurred on Apr. 11.
“I think they watched that video so many times. It’s horrible that Daunte Wright died. Kim Potter is obviously devastated by it as well,” said Moran. “It’s hard to walk away with much of a feeling other than this is such a deeply sad situation that never should have happened.”