MINNESOTA (REUTERS) - A Minnesota jury on Thursday (Dec 23) found former police officer Kimberly Potter guilty of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Black motorist Daunte Wright during a traffic stop when she mistakenly fired her handgun instead of her Taser.
A 12-member jury declared Potter, 49, guilty of first-degree and second-degree manslaughter in the death of the 20-year-old Wright, whom she killed in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center on April 11 with a bullet to the chest.
Potter, who broke down last week on the stand as she testified to her remorse for the shooting, showed little emotion as Judge Regina Chu read the verdict and polled the jury.
Potter was taken away in handcuffs after Chu rejected her attorney's plea for her to be allowed to spend Christmas with family.
"I am going to require that she be taken into custody and held without bail," Judge Chu said. "I cannot treat this case any differently than any other case."
Potter will be sentenced on Feb 18. She faces a maximum sentence of 15 years on the first-degree manslaughter conviction. Under state law, defendants cannot be sentenced for multiple charges pertaining to the same act.
The shooting sparked multiple nights of intense demonstrations in Brooklyn Centre. It happened just a few miles north of where Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was at the same time standing trial for killing Mr George Floyd, a black man whose 2020 death during an arrest had set off protests in US cities over racism and police brutality.
Chauvin was convicted of murder. Both he and Potter are white.
Caught on Potter's body-worn camera, the basic facts of the incident were for the most part not in dispute. Both prosecutors and the defence attorneys agreed that Potter mistakenly drew the wrong weapon and never meant to kill Wright.
At issue was whether the jury would find her actions to be reckless in violation of the state's manslaughter statutes, or chalk up the incident to a tragic mistake that did not warrant criminal liability.
The jury, which agreed on the lesser charge on Tuesday and took two additional days to agree on first-degree manslaughter, went against the expectations of some legal experts who predicted an acquittal or deadlock resulting in mistrial.
Mr Wright's mother, Katie Bryant, said she let out a yelp when she heard the verdict on the most serious count.
"Every single emotion that you could imagine, just running through your body at that moment," Ms Bryant said.
"Today, Minnesota has shown that police officers are not going to continue to pull their gun instead of their Taser."
Potter and another police officer pulled Wright over because there was an air freshener illegally hanging from his rearview mirror and his vehicle's license tabs were expired.
They then learned of a warrant for his arrest on a misdemeanor weapons charge and sought to detain him. Mr Wright resisted, breaking free from the second officer.
Potter then shouted, "Taser, Taser, Taser" and fired into Wright's car, video from her body-worn camera showed.
Potter testified that she feared for the life of a third officer who had entered the car through the passenger side and was trying to keep the vehicle in park.
Minnesota criminal defence attorney Jack Rice, who was not involved in the case, said he believed the video and anti-police sentiment influenced the jury.
"In the end, the video was brutal and it's really difficult to explain away the distinctions between a Taser and a firearm," he said.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors stressed Potter's 26 years as a police officer, experience they said made her mistake indefensible.
They said she disregarded her training, which included Taser-specific courses in the months before the shooting, and took a conscious and unreasonable risk in using any weapon against the unarmed Mr Wright.
Potter's attorneys sought to blame Wright for resisting arrest, which they argued had created a dangerous situation and justified her use of force.
While acknowledging her mistake, they said her actions were not criminal because she thought she was using her Taser and was unaware she had drawn her handgun.
The defence also leaned heavily on Dr Laurence Miller, a psychologist who testified about "action error," or when a person takes one action while intending to do another. Dr Miller said such mistakes were common and can be triggered by stress.
Potter's attorneys took a chance by putting her on the stand. She testified that she was deeply sorry for killing Wright and outlined an otherwise clean record as a police officer. She said she had never discharged her gun before.
"Her remorse and regret for the incident is overwhelming," Mr Paul Engh, one of her attorneys, told the judge in arguing for her to be allowed out on bail until sentencing.