By Amy Forliti, Steve Karnowski, and Tammy Webber
Kim Potter, the former suburban Minneapolis police officer who said she confused her handgun for her Taser when she fatally shot Daunte Wright, was sentenced Friday to two years in prison. Wright’s family denounced the sentence as too lenient and accused the judge of giving more consideration to the white officer than the Black victim.
Potter was convicted in December of first- and second-degree manslaughter in the April 11 killing of Wright, a 20-year-old Black motorist. She was sentenced only on the more serious charge in accordance with state law.
Wright’s mother, Katie Wright, said after the sentencing that Potter “murdered my son,” adding: “Today the justice system murdered him all over again.” She also accused the judge of being taken in by “white woman’s tears” after Potter cried during her pre-sentencing statement.
Speaking before the sentence was imposed, a tearful Wright said she could never forgive Potter and that she would refer to her only as “the defendant” because Potter only referred to her son as “the driver” at trial.
“She never once said his name. And for that I’ll never be able to forgive you. And I’ll never be able to forgive you for what you’ve stolen from us,” said Wright, who also sometimes uses the last name Bryant.
“Daunte Demetrius Wright, I will continue to fight in your name until driving while Black is no longer a death sentence,” she said.
Potter offered an apology to Wright's family, then spoke directly to his mother: “Katie, I understand a mother’s love. I’m sorry I broke your heart ... my heart is broken and devastated for all of you.”
The judge, who imposed a sentence below state guidelines, called it “one of the saddest cases I’ve had on my 20 years on the bench.” Judge Regina Chu said she received “hundreds and hundreds” of letters in support of Potter. “On the one hand, a young man was killed and on the other, a respected 26-year veteran police officer made a tragic error by pulling her handgun instead of her Taser.”
Chu said the lesser sentence was warranted because Potter was “in the line of duty and doing her job in attempting to lawfully arrest Daunte Wright,” and Potter was trying to protect another officer who could have been dragged and seriously injured if Wright drove away.
The judge said Potter will serve the standard two-thirds of her sentence, or 16 months in prison, with the rest on parole. She has earned credit for 58 days that she has been in the state’s women’s prison in Shakopee since the guilty verdict.
Wright was killed after Brooklyn Center officers pulled him over for having expired license tags and an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. Civil rights advocates complain that laws against hanging objects from rearview mirrors have been used as a pretext for stopping Black motorists.
The shooting, which happened as Derek Chauvin was on trial in Minneapolis on murder charges in George Floyd’s killing, sparked several days of demonstrations outside the Brooklyn Center police station marked by tear gas and clashes between protesters and police.
Potter and Chauvin were convicted in the same courtroom.
Wright family attorney Ben Crump said the family was stunned by the sentence, saying they didn't understand why such consideration was given to a white officer in the killing of a young Black man when a Black officer, Mohamed Noor, got a longer sentence in 2017 for the killing of a white woman, Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
“What we see today is the legal system in Black and white.”
But the judge said the case was not the same as other high-profile killings by police.
“This is not a cop found guilty of murder for using his knee to pin down a person for 9 1/2 minutes as he gasped for air. This is not a cop found guilty of manslaughter for intentionally drawing his firearm and shooting across his partner and killing an unarmed woman who approached his squad," said Chu, referring to Chauvin and Noor. “This is a cop who made a tragic mistake."
For someone with no criminal history, such as Potter, the state guidelines on first-degree manslaughter range from slightly more than six years to about 8 1/2 years in prison, with the presumptive sentence being just over seven years.
Prosecutors initially argued that aggravating factors warranted a sentence above the guideline range, saying Potter abused her authority as an officer and that her actions caused a greater-than-normal danger to others. But on Friday, Prosecutor Matt Frank said the presumptive sentence was proper.
“His life mattered, and that life was taken,” Frank said before sentencing. “His name is Daunte Wright. We have to say his name. He was not just a driver. He was a living human being. A life.”
Defense attorney Paul Engh asked for a sentence below the guidelines, including probation only, arguing that Wright was the aggressor. He said the testimony of other officers on the scene showed it was a dangerous situation because Wright was attempting to drive away and Potter had the right to defend other officers.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office prosecuted the case, said he accepts the sentence and urged others to do the same.
People should remember Daunte Wright and “know that no number of years in prison could ever capture the wonder of this young man’s life,” Ellison said in a statement.
But, he said, the sentence doesn’t take away from “the truth of the jury’s verdict.”
Engh told the judge that Wright's death was "beyond tragic for everybody involved." But, he added: “This was an unintentional crime. It was an accident. It was a mistake.”
Engh said if Potter were to receive probation, she would be willing to meet with Wright’s family and to speak to police officers about Taser mix-ups, as suggested by prosecutors.
Engh also held up a box displaying what he said were among “thousands” of letters and cards of support for Potter.
“People took the time to write her," Engh said. "This is unheard of for a defendant. I dare say no one in this room has ever seen anything like this.”
Evidence at Potter’s trial showed officers learned he had an outstanding warrant for a weapons possession charge and they tried to arrest him when he pulled away. Video showed Potter shouted several times that she was going to use her Taser on Wright, but she had her gun in her hand and fired one shot into his chest.
Wright’s father and siblings also addressed the court to speak of their loss.
The mother of Wright's son, Chyna Whitaker, said Friday that Wright would never have a chance to play ball with his son, or see him go to school.
“My son shouldn’t have to wear a ‘rest in peace’ shirt of his dad,” Whitaker said.
Webber contributed from Fenton, Michigan. Associated Press writer Mohamed Ibrahim contributed from Minneapolis.
Updated on February 18, 2022, at 4:21 p.m. ET with additional details.