MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The former Minnesota police officer who shot and killed Daunte Wright alternated between tears, statements of remorse and clipped, matter-of-fact answers as she testified at her trial on manslaughter charges in the death of the Black motorist.
But Kim Potter’s testimony on Friday was notably scant on a key element of her defense – that she made a mistake when she drew her handgun instead of her Taser and killed Wright during a traffic stop last April in Brooklyn Center.
One legal expert who spoke to The Associated Press said the defense may have been intentionally vague on that point, but others said it appeared to be a missed opportunity for Potter to tell jurors how a mix-up might have occurred and what she was thinking — something jurors were likely waiting to hear.
“I didn’t think they pulled enough out of Potter because we did not get into her mind,” said Marsh Halberg, a Minneapolis defense attorney who is not connected to the case.
Under questioning from her attorney Earl Gray, Potter testified that as officers were struggling with Wright, she saw her supervisor, Sgt. Mychal Johnson, leaning into the car with “a look of fear in his face.” As she cried on the stand, she went on to say: “I remember yelling, ‘Taser, Taser, Taser,’ and nothing happened, and then he told me I shot him.” Body camera video recorded Wright saying, “Ah, he shot me” before the car took off.
“He got her to admit that she saw fear on Johnson’s face, but didn’t explore that further,” said John Baker, a former defense attorney who is now teaching aspiring police officers at St. Cloud State University. “He should’ve gone much further and asked her to testify more on that,” Baker said.
He added that Gray didn’t have Potter explain the mistake, saying: “They didn’t even address it.”
Mike Brandt, another Minneapolis attorney watching the case, said breaking down the moments surrounding the shooting may have been effective, but the defense “made a tactical decision that it wasn’t going to be necessary and leave it, perhaps, more vague if you will.”
Brandt said the goal of putting Potter, who is white, on the stand was to humanize her for the jury, something he thinks was done successfully. Brandt said Gray did a good job of using Potter’s words to paint a picture of a woman who was inspired to become an officer at an early age, who had no complaints against her and who didn’t seek to move up the ranks because she liked working on the streets.
While the experts believed Potter’s tears were genuine, they had mixed views on how her emotions might have played for the jury.
“It was almost gut-wrenching actually to watch, particularly on cross. Her facial expressions looked like she was actively reliving the trauma of the experience,” said Rachel Moran, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.
Moran said it’s hard not to believe that Potter is horrified and sorry for what she has done. But while some people might empathize with Potter, others might take issue with the fact that she needed comforting after the shooting when the focus should have been on Wright, Moran said.
Moran said the fact that her lawyers didn’t get into Potter’s mindset was “strange,” saying she believes one of the first questions that should’ve been asked was whether Potter meant to shoot Wright.
Experts said Erin Eldridge, the prosecutor who questioned Potter, was generally strong in cross-examination.
Brandt said Potter came across as too defensive and slightly combative when she gave short answers to Eldridge, but he said Eldridge started looking like a “bully” when Potter began crying. Moran said Eldridge wasn’t particularly aggressive, but kept “bulldozing” through her cross-examination, even as Potter had what Moran called a “visible breakdown.” She said it’s hard to say how that will play with the jury.
Moran also said that Potter’s immediate reaction to the shooting, which is seen on the police videos, shows she knew she did something horribly wrong and did not intend to use her gun. She said Eldridge was strong in establishing that during her cross-examination.
Notably, Eldridge at one point got Potter to agree that she didn’t plan to use deadly force — Potter’s attorneys have been arguing that even if this wasn’t a mistake, Potter would have been justified in using deadly force because she feared Johnson’s life was in danger.
Baker said another highlight was when Eldridge walked Potter through the body camera video and showed Potter what she did.
“It was really damning when she got the video of the freeze frame of her with her hand on what appeared to be her weapon as she was still standing by and about to come in,” Baker said. “I think she did a great job of impeaching her.”
Baker said if the jurors had begun deliberating shortly after Potter’s testimony, her emotional display might have had more of an effect. He said having the weekend between her testimony and closing arguments gives jurors some distance.
Legal experts said Potter’s testimony wasn’t as strong as they expected it to be.
Baker said the defense spent too much time on the justification for the traffic stop, and there wasn’t enough focus on the moments when she pulled out her gun instead of her Taser. Baker said Potter didn’t provide any explanation of what she did at that moment, something he called “problematic for the defense.”
Halberg added on Friday: “I thought today was going to be the knockout punch. But that was not the case.”