Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and his crew of cop prosecutors are proving that they know how to win a trial. Their latest trophy is former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter.
Potter was found guilty 10 days ago of both first- and second-degree manslaughter. She shot and killed Daunte Wright, who tried to escape while she and fellow officers were trying to arrest him.
I confess that I did not watch the trial on video, although I did follow the news reports closely. The facts of what happened were clear from the police body cameras. Potter like other officers present had pulled her revolver. Because of some unconscious mental process, she yelled, “Taser, taser, taser,” just before pulling the trigger. The gun’s bullet struck Wright in the heart, killing him. Potter was immediately distraught, realizing that she not only had made a mistake that would end her law enforcement career, but saying it would send her to prison.
One can understand how a jury could find Potter guilty of second-degree manslaughter. She pulled the trigger, and Wright died. The only one of five definitions of second-degree manslaughter in the Minnesota Statutes that applies is the first one, which reads, “A person who 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. …”
Some will argue that Potter did not “consciously” choose to shoot Wright. In the heat of the moment, she thought she was tasing him, which was unlikely to inflict any long-term damage at all. Regardless, none of us would expect to kill someone, claim it was a mistake and expect no consequences would result. The only defense in killing someone is defending oneself or others from imminent harm.
The guilty verdict for first-degree manslaughter was a stretch. That offense also has five definitions in state statutes. The only one that could possibly apply would be the second one which reads, “… violates section 609.224 and causes the death of another or causes the death of another in committing or attempting to commit a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor offense with such force and violence that death of or great bodily harm to any person was reasonably foreseeable, and murder in the first or second degree was not committed thereby.”
The key here is section 609.224, which defines assault in the fifth degree. However, Potter and the officers were not trying to assault Wright; they were trying to arrest him. They had good reason to pull their firearms.
We learned after the fact that Wright was on a bad path in his life, one that was likely to find him incarcerated had he lived. He was stopped because of expired license tabs. Some progressives have argued that that this is a “minor” offense that should be ignored. While all can agree that such offenses are not worth costing anyone their life, the reason officers drew their guns was because a check of Wright’s record found an outstanding arrest warrant for a weapons violation. That’s not a minor violation; that’s a clear indication that the police were dealing with someone who had little regard for the laws of this state. If tasing someone to effect an arrest is considered an assault, then tasing needs to be outlawed.
Unlike the conviction of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, who had about nine minutes to try to revive George Floyd and did nothing, Potter’s action came in a chaotic moment created by Wright. Both the prosecution and defense in the Potter case have said they will seek deviation from state sentencing guidelines. District Court Judge Regina Chu will determine the sentence.
While the state statute says that someone convicted of manslaughter in the first degree can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, state sentencing guidelines recommend a sentence of 86 months for someone, like Potter, with no criminal history. The judge, however, has a range from 74 to 106 months within which she does not have to explain her actions.
Judge Chu has much to consider. If political considerations did not matter, she would stay within the guidelines; since Potter is remorseful and exceptionally unlikely to re-offend, the sentence should be at the low end.
If Ellison and his crew insist on making an example of Potter, seeking vengeance more than justice because she was a cop, and Chu goes along, law enforcement officers throughout the state will be put on notice that they are in the wrong profession.
In the wake of Chauvin’s prosecution, many have already decided that for themselves. Minneapolis has lost so many officers, that, the StarTribune reported, violent crimes are up this year 30% compared to the average for 2015-2019, but arrests are down 30%.
On the other hand, a downward sentencing deviation, as the defense wants, may lead to looting by street mobs, so Chu has to consider the intimidation factor as well.
For the rest of us, what matters most is that the laws of this self-governing state are enforced uniformly and that, if we need a law enforcement officer to save us in an emergency, someone will come when we call. Potter’s conviction did nothing to improve the chances of either happening.
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at email@example.com.