Trial of ex-officer Kimberly Potter trial tests 'innocent mistake' claim for police

·8 min read

Kimberly Potter's attorneys acknowledge that the former Brooklyn Center officer killed Daunte Wright last April when she reached for her handgun instead of her Taser and fired a single shot into his chest.

But as jury selection for Potter's manslaughter trial in the 20-year-old Black man's death nears, their defense lies within the veteran police officer's lack of intent. They say her miscalculation, grave as it was, should not equal a prison sentence.

"Officer Potter's regret is abundantly clear on the body camera videos and will be with her the rest of her life," her attorney, Paul Engh, said. "But hers was an innocent mistake. An accident is not a crime."

"Innocent accident" and "innocent mistake," will be themes in Potter's defense when the trial, expected to be watched across the country, begins at the end of this month. The state initially charged Potter with second-degree manslaughter, which requires a finding that she acted with "culpable negligence" in Wright's death. In September, Attorney General Keith Ellison added the more serious charge of first-degree manslaughter, defined as "recklessly" causing Wright's death. The complaint against Potter cited the "substantial amount of training, including training related to use of force and, specifically, to the use of Tasers and firearms."

Despite her experience, Engh and his co-counsel, Earl Gray, say that mistakes can still be made. They plan to call Laurence Miller, a forensic and police psychologist based in Florida, to testify on "slip and capture errors," the notion that a more common action, such as deploying a firearm, can override a less common action, such as deploying a Taser.

Potter's 26-year career as a police officer ended in the tumultuous days that followed Wright's death. Today, she is preparing for the start of her trial. In a recent interview in her attorney's office, she cried while describing how she has spent much of the past six months struggling 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."

Mistake or not, Potter must be held accountable, prosecutors said. Ellison said Wright's killing is another example of badly needed police reform.

"No one … should expect this case will be easy to prosecute. History shows that this case, like all cases of officer-involved deaths by deadly force, will be difficult," he said in a statement when his office took on the case. "… If legislators at every level pass long-overdue reforms, if police leadership demonstrates misconduct has no place in the profession, and if community continues to keep up the cry for justice, we will break the cycle of history and establish a new standard for justice."

Jeff Storms, an attorney representing Wright's family, was dubious of the defense of accidental shooting.

"An accident is knocking over a glass of milk, it's not discharging your duty weapon and killing somebody," said Storms, who said prosecutors went to great lengths in court filings to lay out the distinct differences between a handgun and a Taser, combined with Potter's 26 years of experience. "I think it's going to be very difficult for a jury to believe this is a mere accident."

A veteran officer

Potter turned 49 in June. She was a patrol officer her entire career and expected to retire comfortably at 55. Potter said she enjoyed the softer side of policing, making connections and building people up. At 5-foot-3, she realized early on that verbal persuasion, not physical strength, would be her most significant asset.

Annual job appraisals provided by her attorneys reveal a solid if unremarkable career that will likely be part of her defense. Potter had no complaints on her official record and until that day last April, had never fired her gun while on duty.

Potter's discipline record showed a verbal reprimand for "blatant disrespect" in 2007 when, while assigned to an anti-robbery detail, she instead made notes in her log on squirrel activity in a park.

Supervisors praised Potter's communication skills and command of the law. Their main criticism over the years was that she didn't initiate enough traffic stops. Potter says now that she didn't care for that part of the job.

"There's a lot of poverty," she said, explaining her disinterest. "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 defense said it was expired tabs that prompted Wright's April traffic stop by Brooklyn Center officer Anthony Luckey, a new officer whom Potter was training. In a routine records check on Wright, Luckey discovered that Wright had a warrant for a gross misdemeanor weapons charge.

According to body camera video, Luckey tried to arrest and put handcuffs on Wright, but he spun away and got back in the car. Within seconds, Potter said, "I'll tase ya." But she drew her Glock 9mm handgun with her right hand and fired a single fatal shot at Wright. He gasped, "Ah, he shot me!" before the car accelerated and crashed into a tree.

"Holy shit, I just shot him," Potter said on a body camera video released by police. Court filings say that she also sobbed hysterically and said "oh my God" at least 59 times, along with "I'm going to prison." She also said she had grabbed the wrong gun.

The shooting came at a fraught time in Minnesota, the waning days of the murder trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd. The simmering tensions from the courtroom transferred into days of turbulent unrest in Brooklyn Center and focused on Potter.

On April 21, Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter. During a protest march in May led by Wright's family, activists carried black-and-white fliers showing Potter's face with the words "You're Next."

'Always felt good to help'

For colleagues who saw Potter as a supportive role model, her fall has been difficult and comparisons to Chauvin ring false.

"She's always caring, friendly, and she would always treat everybody respectfully. She was just compassionate in her day-to-day work," said Ryan Holgers, a former Brooklyn Center police officer who worked with Potter for eight years and was assigned to her shift as a young cop.

Potter, then Kim Perry, was sworn in as a Brooklyn Center police officer in February 1995 for $2,439 a month, less than a year after she graduated from St. Mary's University in Winona with a criminal justice degree.

Her application noted she had applied to a number of city police departments including Anoka, Eagan, Oakdale and Maple Grove as well as the state patrol. She didn't pass the physical portion of the Maple Grove test and didn't hear back from the state or Oakdale.

Among her references was Jeff Potter, a Fridley police officer, who said he had known her for seven years and had been dating her for 18 months, according to the hiring review. He described her as "level headed" and "indicated that she does not lose her temper when engaged in arguments and that she is verbally skilled."

The two have been married 24 years. He retired from the Fridley Police Department in 2017 and became a corporate security investigator at Allina Health. They have two sons.

In explaining the pull she felt to the job, Potter said, "It was a way to help people, to change society. To make things better."

That commitment was put to the test in 2007, when Potter was trying to help Savannah Stevens, an abused single mother of a 2-year-old daughter. Potter and her former sergeant, Frank Roth, who was with her for the recent interview, talked about convincing Stevens to break from her abusive boyfriend.

But within a couple days, they responded to a 911 call. Stevens was alive when they arrived but she had been stabbed dozens of times and died. The ex-boyfriend had fled with the child and threatened to jump off a bridge before surrendering. He was convicted of second-degree murder and remains in prison.

Despite the tragedy, Potter stuck with the work of helping abuse victims. She didn't come from a volatile home, but said she took satisfaction in showing women they could be strong and "they didn't have to be in terrible relationships." In 2011, Potter was a founding member of the department's Domestic Abuse Response Team, which supports victims with referrals and safety plans.

"It always felt good to help someone. You were devastated when you couldn't," she said in the interview.

Two days after shooting Wright, Potter submitted her resignation, writing, "I have loved every minute of being a police officer and serving this community to the best of my ability."

She was arrested the following day and booked into the Hennepin County jail. She is free on $100,000 bond. She no longer lives in Minnesota, but makes occasional trips here to prepare for her trial and visit her elderly mother.

Storms, the Wright family attorney, said he's not surprised the case made it to trial, even though the facts of what happened are indisputable. In order for a plea deal to occur, "Kim Potter would have to agree to something that would have a very serious consequence on her life."

"It's easy to say, 'I don't have anything to lose, I might as well try my luck with a jury. Very guilty people try their luck with juries all the time."

Staff writer Erica Pearson contributed to this report.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747