Why officer who fatally shot Daunte Wright was charged with manslaughter, not murder

Mike Stunson
·5 min read

A Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was charged with manslaughter Wednesday, three days after the killing that has commanded national attention.

Along with protests in support of racial justice popping up across the nation, Wright’s death led some people to question why the white police officer, who has since resigned from her job, was not charged with murder.

“She needs to pay for what she did to my family,” Naisha Wright, Daunte Wright’s aunt, said on CNN. “My family’s blood is on their hands.”

But the difference between the charges “is largely a matter of degree,” a Minnesota criminal law professor told McClatchy News.

Here’s a look at the criminal statutes in Minnesota and why prosecutors may have decided on the manslaughter charge against Potter.

Definitions of the charges

Second-degree manslaughter — Potter’s official charge — is defined as when a person “causes the death of another by the person’s culpable negligence whereby the person creates an unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another.”

A guilty verdict carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Third-degree murder is defined as when a person “causes the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.”

A person found guilty of third-degree murder can be imprisoned for up to 25 years.

Examples of first-degree murder in Minnesota include a planned killing, the death of a person while also committing various criminal acts, killing a police officer, or killing a spouse or child when it also involves abuse. It is the most serious of the murder degrees.

A charge of second-degree murder can be issued when the suspect intentionally kills another person, but not premeditated. A person could also be given the charge when killing someone in a drive-by shooting or causing the death of a person while committing a felony offense other than sexual conduct.

What happened during fatal traffic stop

Wright was pulled over Sunday in a Minneapolis suburb for driving with expired license plates, Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon said.

Officers said they then discovered Wright had a warrant for his arrest. Court records obtained by the Associated Press reveal Wright failed to appear in court following charges of fleeing from officers and carrying a gun without a permit.

Body cam footage shows at least three officers, including Potter, approach Wright’s car and begin to detain him when police said he began to resist.

Potter is heard repeatedly saying, “I’ll tase you!” as Wright retreats back to his vehicle. A few seconds later, she fires her handgun — not her Taser — at Wright.

Wright’s death was described by Gannon, who has also resigned, as “an accidental death.” Potter reportedly intended to discharge her Taser, not her handgun, during the encounter with Wright, officials said.

FILE - This photo provided by Ben Crump Law, PLLC. shows Daunte Wright and his son, Daunte Jr., at his first birthday party. Wright, 20, was killed during a traffic stop by a white suburban Minneapolis police officer on Sunday, April 11, 2021. (Ben Crump Law, PLLC. via AP)
FILE - This photo provided by Ben Crump Law, PLLC. shows Daunte Wright and his son, Daunte Jr., at his first birthday party. Wright, 20, was killed during a traffic stop by a white suburban Minneapolis police officer on Sunday, April 11, 2021. (Ben Crump Law, PLLC. via AP)

Experts weigh in on manslaughter vs. murder charge

Richard Frase, a criminal law professor at the University of Minnesota, mentioned the similarities between second-degree manslaughter and third-degree murder charges and pinpointed one major difference.

“Both charges involve risky behavior, and awareness of risk, but the degree of risk must be higher for the murder charge — it must involve acts that are ‘eminently dangerous,’ and done ‘with a depraved mind without regard for human life,’” Frase told McClatchy.

Frase said the argument that Potter intended to fire her Taser may make it difficult for prosecutors to prove in court that the fatal shooting warrants a murder charge.

“If she thought she was firing her Taser, how can the state show beyond a reasonable doubt that she consciously took chances of death or great bodily harm?” he said. “A Taser almost never causes such serious harm.”

Proving Potter had a “depraved mind without regard for human life” would be even more difficult, Frase added, because the state would have to find evidence that she previously drew the wrong weapon and did nothing to prevent it from happening again.

Third-degree murder charges are rare because the term “depraved mind” is ambiguous and difficult to prove, Minnesota legal expert Kevin Burke told KTSP.

Potter’s behavior after the shooting, where she said, “Oh s---,” could indicate she did not intend to kill Wright, Burke added. An intention to kill would bring a second-degree murder charge, he said.

“It doesn’t make any sense to overcharge cases that can’t be proved, nor does it make any sense to undercharge cases because you’re empathetic or sympathetic to the defendant,” Burke told the station. “The idea is to pick the right statute that fits the fact situation and I think that’s what Washington County Attorney Pete Orput did.”

Ben Crump, the attorney representing Wright’s family, says the shooting was not an accident.

“This was an intentional, deliberate, and unlawful use of force,” Crump said in a statement. “Driving while Black continues to result in a death sentence. A 26-year veteran of the force knows the difference between a Taser and a firearm.”

Naisha Wright said Tuesday she hopes Potter is held to “the highest extent of the law,” ABC News reported.

Earl Gray, who is representing Potter, hasn’t yet publicly commented on the case.

Charges against Potter could still be upgraded by prosecutors.

Comparisons with Derek Chauvin-George Floyd case

Crump also represents the family of George Floyd, who was killed in May 2020 after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for at least eight minutes.

A 17-year-old bystander took video of the incident, in which Floyd can be heard saying, “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe.” Floyd’s death sparked nationwide protests and renewed calls for racial and social justice.

Chauvin was fired less than 24 hours after Floyd’s death and later charged with third-degree “depraved mind” murder, second-degree unintentional felony murder and second-degree manslaughter. His trial began last month and is ongoing.

Prosecutors are attempting to prove Chauvin’s actions caused the death of Floyd. To prove the second-degree murder charge, attorneys argue “Chauvin caused Floyd’s death while committing or trying to commit a felony — in this case, third-degree assault,” the Associated Press reported.

Proving the manslaughter charge requires proof that Floyd’s death was caused through negligence by Chauvin that created an unreasonable risk.