MINNEAPOLIS — The former police officer who fatally shot a man in a Minneapolis suburb after seeming to mistake her gun for her Taser was convicted of two counts of manslaughter on Thursday, a rare guilty verdict for a police officer that is likely to send her to prison for years.
The jury deliberated across four days before agreeing on guilty verdicts for Kimberly Potter, a 49-year-old white woman who testified that she had never fired her gun on the police force in Brooklyn Center, Minn., until she shot a single bullet into the chest of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who had been driving to a carwash in April.
Judge Regina Chu ordered that Ms. Potter be immediately sent to prison, and deputies led her out of the courtroom in handcuffs as one of her relatives shouted, “Love you, Kim!” As the verdict was read, Ms. Potter looked down briefly and then glanced at the jurors, but did not appear to cry, as she did when she testified earlier in the trial.
It is unusual for police officers to be convicted after claiming to mix up a gun and Taser, and jurors heard from several witnesses who testified that Ms. Potter had been right to try to stun Mr. Wright. Several police officers — including two who were put on the stand by prosecutors — suggested in their testimony that even if Ms. Potter had meant to fire her gun, it would have been justified because another officer was reaching into the passenger side of the car and was at risk of being dragged if Mr. Wright drove off. But in finding Ms. Potter guilty, jurors rejected that argument.
Judge Chu will sentence Ms. Potter at a hearing scheduled for February. The standard sentence for the more serious charge, first-degree manslaughter, is a little over seven years in prison, and the maximum penalty is 15 years. Prosecutors have indicated that they will ask the judge to hand down a longer-than-average prison term, and Ms. Potter’s lawyers are likely to ask for a sentencing below the standard range.
Mr. Wright’s parents let out cries in the courtroom as the guilty verdicts were read and later joined several dozen of Mr. Wright’s supporters who celebrated outside of the courthouse in downtown Minneapolis.
“Today, Minnesota has shown that police officers are not going to continue to pull their gun instead of their Taser,” Mr. Wright’s mother, Katie Bryant, said to the supporters. “And we made this happen, you made this happen, Daunte Wright made this happen.”
Body camera videos from the traffic stop on April 11 showed that Mr. Wright had twisted out of the grip of another officer who was trying to handcuff him and gotten back into the driver’s seat of his car. A judge had issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Wright earlier that month after Mr. Wright missed a court date on charges that he had illegally possessed a gun and run from the police.
In the videos, Ms. Potter is heard threatening to stun Mr. Wright with her Taser, but she had actually drawn her department-issued Glock. She yelled “Taser! Taser! Taser!” and pulled the trigger. Then, realizing that she had shot him instead, Ms. Potter shouted that she had grabbed the wrong weapon, collapsed to the ground and sobbed as she said she was going to go to prison.
At trial, prosecutors conceded that the shooting was an accident, but they argued that Ms. Potter, who resigned two days after the shooting, had been so reckless that she should be imprisoned.
The shooting took place during the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white former Minneapolis police officer who was ultimately convicted of murdering George Floyd, a Black man whose death led to a huge protest movement and heightened scrutiny of police killings.
As the highest-profile trial of a police officer since Mr. Chauvin’s conviction, the Potter trial has been seen by some as a test of whether juries are more likely to convict police officers of crimes after the outcry over Mr. Floyd’s death.
Richard Frase, an emeritus law professor at the University of Minnesota, said he was “a bit surprised” that jurors had convicted Ms. Potter on both counts, having expected a split verdict. He said the fact that Ms. Potter was charged and convicted was a sign that people were more willing to punish police killings.
“Prosecutors have become more confident that they actually have a shot at getting a conviction,” Mr. Frase said. “The state did a pretty effective job of making its case.”
Lawyers in the office of Keith Ellison, the Minnesota attorney general, led the prosecution of both cases.
At a news conference after the verdict on Thursday, Mr. Ellison said he had Mr. Wright had been a proud father of his son, Daunte Jr., now 2, and said that “all of us miss out” on seeing who Mr. Wright would have become as he grew older. Mr. Ellison added that his thoughts were also with Ms. Potter, who he said had gone from being an “honored member of a noble profession to being convicted of a serious crime.”
“I don’t wish that on anyone,” he said. “But it was our responsibility as the prosecution, as ministers of justice, to pursue justice wherever it led, and the jury found the facts.”
The jurors’ verdict forms indicated that the long deliberations had been almost entirely focused on the first-degree manslaughter charge. They had all agreed to find Ms. Potter guilty of second-degree manslaughter by Tuesday morning, after less than seven hours of deliberations. On Tuesday afternoon, they asked Judge Chu what would happen if they “cannot reach consensus,” suggesting they were in conflict on the more serious charge.
Judge Chu urged them to keep discussing the case, and they agreed to find Ms. Potter guilty late on Thursday morning. The jurors were anonymous during the trial and are likely to remain so for at least several months.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever know what the holdup was on this jury,” Mr. Frase said.
The final witness in the trial had been Ms. Potter, who sobbed as she described the moments leading up to the shooting and said she was “so sorry” it had happened.
She had been riding in a police car with Officer Anthony Luckey, a rookie officer she was training, when Officer Luckey began following Mr. Wright’s white Buick because he noticed that the car had used the wrong turn signal. Officer Luckey noticed that the car had an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, which is against the law in many states, and also had an expired registration sticker.
When Mr. Wright’s car was photographed by investigators after the shooting, a black, tree-shaped air freshener was on the driver’s seat, covered in his blood.
Ms. Potter testified that in the moments before the shooting, she had seen the third officer at the scene, Sgt. Mychal Johnson, leaning into the car and that he had “a look of fear on his face.”
In finding Ms. Potter guilty, jurors found that she had not been justified in using her weapon and that she had knowingly taken a risk of seriously harming Mr. Wright, even if she mistakenly thought she was firing her Taser.
Prosecutors argued that Ms. Potter, in meaning to use her Taser, had consciously risked harming Mr. Wright, because her Police Department’s policies warned against using a Taser on someone who is driving a car. The prosecutors also said that Sergeant Johnson had not been at risk of being dragged because only a small part of his body was in the car when Ms. Potter fired.
“Accidents can still be crimes,” a prosecutor, Erin Eldridge, told the jury during closing arguments. She called the killing “a colossal screw-up” and “a blunder of epic proportions.”
In the defense’s closing argument, Earl Gray, a lawyer for Ms. Potter, said that Mr. Wright had “caused his own death” by trying to flee from the police. He also said Ms. Potter should not be imprisoned for an accident.
“This lady here made a mistake, and my gosh, a mistake is not a crime,” Mr. Gray said.
Tim Gannon, who was the chief of the Brooklyn Center Police Department until he was forced to resign after the shooting, testified that Ms. Potter had not broken his department’s rules.
Mr. Gannon, who testified for the defense and said he was pushed out for refusing to fire Ms. Potter, said that when he viewed videos of the shooting, he saw “no violation — of policy, procedure or law.”
At least two police officers who were called to testify by prosecutors gave similar responses when they were cross-examined by Ms. Potter’s lawyers, including Sergeant Johnson, who said that he might have been killed if Mr. Wright had driven away and that Ms. Potter had been justified in using her gun.
In their closing arguments, Ms. Eldridge argued that the testimony of the police officers was colored by loyalty to Ms. Potter, saying that “when trouble comes, it’s family that supports you unconditionally.”
For a week after the shooting, thousands of people gathered outside of the Brooklyn Center Police Department, grilling and providing groceries to nearby residents by day and throwing water bottles and other objects at a line of police officers come nightfall. The police made hundreds of arrests and fired an array of projectiles, including foam bullets, canisters of smoke and pepper spray that made it difficult to breathe.
During the trial, Ms. Potter’s husband, a retired police officer, sat in the courtroom for much of the proceedings, as did Mr. Wright’s mother, Katie Bryant, who often cried quietly in court as videos of her son’s death were shown to jurors.
On the first day of the trial, Ms. Bryant testified that her son had called her when he was pulled over, but that the line had gone dead seconds before he began to struggle with the police. Ms. Bryant said that she raced to the scene, where she saw a white sheet that covered everything except for her son’s familiar tennis shoes.