Updated 4:30 p.m.
Former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter was sentenced Friday to two years in prison in the killing of Daunte Wright during a traffic stop last year, a sentence lower than recommended in state guidelines.
She’s expected to spend about two-thirds of her sentence behind bars. With time already served, that leaves about 14 or 15 months remaining. A jury in December convicted Potter of first- and second-degree manslaughter in Wright’s shooting.
“This is a cop who made a tragic mistake,” Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu said as she sentenced Potter. “She drew her firearm thinking it was a Taser and ended up killing a young man.”
Under Minnesota law, someone convicted of several crimes is sentenced based on the most serious charge. In Potter’s case, that was first-degree manslaughter, where state guidelines call for a sentence of 74 to 103 months, or about six to 8 1/2 years.
In sentencing Potter, though, Chu said the trial evidence showed Potter never intended to use her firearm and that the scene was “chaotic, tense and rapidly evolving … officer Potter was required to make a split-second judgment,” a mitigating factor in her lower sentence, along with the fact that Potter had no prior criminal history.
The judge made it clear she saw this case as different than the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in 2020 and the 2017 fatal shooting of 911 caller Justine Ruszczyk by then-officer Mohamed Noor, cases that led to much stiffer sentences for the officers convicted. She called Wright’s killing “one of the saddest cases I’ve had in my 20 years on the bench.”
Wright’s parents expressed anger at the sentence and signaled their belief that race and gender — Potter is a white woman, Wright was a black man — played a role in the sentence.
“Kim Potter murdered my son and … today the justice system murdered him all over again,” Katie Wright told reporters.
“We’re very disappointed in the outcome. Yes, we got a conviction, and we thank everybody for that. But this isn’t OK. A white woman’s tears trump justice.”
Arbuey Wright said he felt cheated by the sentencing for his son’s death.
“They were so tied up into her feelings that they forgot about my son being killed,” he said. “This lady got a slap on the wrist, and we sit around every night crying, waiting for our son to come home.”
Just prior to the sentencing, Potter tearfully told Wright’s mother Katie, “I understand a mother’s love, and I’m sorry I broke your heart. My heart is broken for all of you,” adding, “I do pray that one day you can find forgiveness, only because hatred is destructive to all of us. I am so sorry.”
Speaking before the sentencing, Wright’s parents delivered heart-wrenching words as they spoke warmly of their son and the void left by his killing.
Katie Wright told the court she would never be able to forgive Potter for only referring to Daunte in court as the driver and not saying his name. “You took his future,” she said. “She failed Daunte, our family and our community.”
Wearing a pin with his son’s picture, Arbuey Wright noted Daunte’s son, now 2, had only a short time together. “It hurts my heart that Daunte will not have these memories with Daunte Jr., he said. “Everything we do as a family ends in tears, because all we have is memories left of our son.”
Wright’s mother said she was especially angered by Potter’s prison mug shot that shows her smiling. Potter attorney Paul Engh said later that Potter was asked to smile when the photo was taken at the women’s prison in Shakopee and it was not meant to be disrespectful.
Prosecutors initially said they’d seek a sentence longer than state guidelines call for, but then said Potter should get seven years — the presumptive term for someone with no criminal record. Defense attorneys asked for probation.
Arguing for a sentence with no prison time, Engh said Potter has a large support system and lived a virtuous life in line with her Catholic values. He said she’s received three boxes of cards from supporters, and he read a few in court.
A common refrain among the letters, he noted: If we send officers to prison for mistakes, no one will want to be one.
Sentencing more lenient than Noor
Wright family attorney Ben Crump questioned why the justice system gave a stiffer sentence to ex-Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor than it did for Potter.
Noor was convicted for the 2017 killing of 911 caller Justine Ruszczyk, a case in which Noor, sitting in the passenger seat of his squad car in an alley, shot across his partner’s lap at Ruszczyk as she approached the driver’s side window.
He was initially sentenced by Judge Kathryn Quaintance to 12 1/2 years in prison for third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The judge said a tougher sentence was justified because Noor endangered his partner, a bicyclist and other residents nearby that night.
The third-degree murder conviction was later overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court. Noor was then resentenced to nearly five years on the second-degree manslaughter conviction.
Potter’s sentence was for first-degree manslaughter, a charge where the upper end of the guidelines can bring a sentence of more than eight years.
Different judges oversaw the Noor and Potter trials. Crump, though, saw race and gender at play in the differences in the way the two officers were sentenced.
Wright’s family members, he said, “don’t understand why there was consideration given to the white policewoman who killed a Black man and not consideration for a Black police officer who killed a white woman.”
‘Taser! Taser! Taser!’
Wright’s fatal police encounter with Potter began as a routine Sunday afternoon traffic stop in Brooklyn Center.
Potter and the officer she was training pulled Wright’s car over for an air freshener hanging from his car’s rearview mirror and for expired license plate tabs. A third officer also arrived on the scene.
Running a background check, they found Wright had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear on a gross misdemeanor weapons violation.
As he stood outside the car, the officers told Wright he was under arrest. As they began to handcuff him, Wright slipped away and jumped back into the driver’s seat.
On police camera video, Potter can be heard telling Wright “I’ll tase ya” while holding her 9 mm handgun in her right hand and pointing it at Wright as officers try to keep Wright from driving away.
She yells “Taser! Taser! Taser!” just before firing a single bullet into Wright’s chest; he drove off but crashed shortly after. Potter, 49, is heard saying on the video. “I grabbed the wrong (expletive) gun … I’m going to go to prison.”
Potter later told investigators she had intended to draw her Taser to subdue Wright but unintentionally drew her service weapon.
The shooting in April 2021 led to a week of sometimes violent protests as former officer Derek Chauvin’s trial in the killing of George Floyd was still underway. Prosecutors did not characterize Potter’s shooting of Wright as racially motivated.
Defense attorneys said Potter made a mistake, and was reacting to Wright’s sudden move to get in his car other officers struggled with him.
Potter’s prosecutors never characterized Wright’s killing as racially motivated, but civil rights advocates around the case pointed to a long history of officers not being held accountable when they kill unarmed Black people.
Correction (Feb. 18, 2022): An earlier version of this story said Potter’s sentence was at the low end of state guidelines. It is below the guidelines.