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MINNEAPOLIS — Testifying in front of the jurors who will decide her fate, Kimberly Potter broke down on Friday as she watched body camera video that captured her fatal shooting of a 20-year-old Black man during an encounter that began with a traffic stop over an air freshener.
The shooting of Daunte Wright, she said, was the only time she had ever fired her gun in 26 years of policing in Brooklyn Center, a Minneapolis suburb. And, Ms. Potter said, it had been a mistake. She had meant to stun Mr. Wright with her Taser, a weapon she said she had also never used in the field.
Ms. Potter, who is white, shook her head and tightly closed her eyes as a prosecutor played a video of her shouting “I’ll Tase you!” and “Taser! Taser! Taser!” before firing a single bullet into Mr. Wright’s chest.
“I’m sorry it happened,” Ms. Potter testified through tears. “I didn’t want to hurt anybody.”
It was the first public account by Ms. Potter of the mistake she said she made on the side of a road that day, which cost Mr. Wright his life and led prosecutors to file two manslaughter charges that could send her to prison for years. And it was another emotionally charged moment in the nation’s long, anguished history of controversial killings by police officers, particularly of Black men.
Ms. Potter, who resigned two days after the shooting, testified on Friday as the last of 33 witnesses whom jurors have heard from during the trial. The jury will begin to deliberate on Monday after lawyers for each side make closing arguments.
The case is a rare example of a police officer being charged for killing someone while on duty, made even more rare because the prosecution and defense agree that this shooting was an accident. Two-thirds of the roughly 15 police officers who claimed to mistake their guns for their Tasers over the past two decades were never charged.
But the shooting of Mr. Wright, which caused a week of volatile protests, received heightened scrutiny in part because it came during the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer later convicted of murdering George Floyd.
Over eight days of testimony, jurors have watched a series of videos and heard from more than a dozen police officers, as well as a psychologist, Mr. Wright’s parents and Ms. Potter’s friends and colleagues. Many of them differed sharply on whether Ms. Potter had erred in trying to stop Mr. Wright from fleeing after a police officer tried to arrest him on a warrant for missing a court date on a gun charge.
On the stand, Ms. Potter, 49, said she probably would not have pulled Mr. Wright’s car over had she been riding alone. But she was training a rookie officer, Anthony Luckey, who stopped Mr. Wright’s car after he noticed an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror and saw that the car’s registration was expired. The air freshener, Ms. Potter testified, was a minor violation, and officers had largely stopped ticketing people for expired registrations because the coronavirus pandemic had made it hard for people to get new ones.
Asked about the day of the shooting, she said that “so much of it is missing” from her memory.
“I remember yelling ‘Taser! Taser! Taser!’ and nothing happened, and then he told me I shot him,” Ms. Potter said.
Ms. Potter said she recalled being put in an ambulance and taken to the police station. There, she was met by her husband, Jeff Potter, a retired police officer who sat in the courtroom during her testimony, which lasted for about an hour and 55 minutes. Also in the courtroom were Mr. Wright’s parents; his mother, Katie Bryant, sobbed as Ms. Potter apologized from the stand.
When Ms. Potter was cross-examined by a prosecutor in the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, she and the jurors were shown side-by-side photographs of Ms. Potter’s gun and her Taser. The Taser is larger and mostly bright yellow, with a black handle. The gun, a Glock, is entirely black.
“These items look different, don’t they?” asked the prosecutor, Erin Eldridge.
“Yes,” Ms. Potter replied.
In a statement, lawyers representing Mr. Wright’s family said Ms. Potter’s testimony had again shown that his death was preventable. “As the defense rests and we look ahead to jury deliberations and a verdict, we must not forget that Daunte’s parents, his extended family and his child are facing another holiday without him,” said the lawyers, Ben Crump, Antonio Romanucci and Jeff Storms.
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Prosecutors have tried to build a case that Ms. Potter was so reckless, particularly given her training and experience, that she should be imprisoned for a deadly mistake that left grieving parents and Mr. Wright’s young child, Daunte Jr., now 2, in its wake. They argue that Ms. Potter’s attempt to use the Taser was itself a violation of department policy that advises officers to not stun people who are driving a car, and they said she had received extensive training on safely using her Taser.
But defense lawyers elicited testimony from a series of witnesses — including some who were called by prosecutors — that bolstered their case. Several police officers and a defense expert testified that Ms. Potter had not only been right to try to use her Taser, but was also justified in firing her gun — even if she had done so intentionally — because another officer was leaning into Mr. Wright’s car through the passenger door. That officer, Sgt. Mychal Johnson, testified that he could have been killed had Mr. Wright driven off, and several other officers agreed during the trial, including the police chief at the time who said he was forced to resign because he refused to immediately fire Ms. Potter.
Ms. Potter testified on Friday that she saw Sergeant Johnson leaning into the car and that he had “a look of fear on his face — it’s nothing I’ve seen before.” Prosecutors contend that only Sergeant Johnson’s hands were in the car at the time of the shooting, and that Ms. Potter did not have a good view of him anyway.
Just before the shooting, the police had asked Mr. Wright to step out of his car. He did, and when an officer tried to handcuff him because of the warrant, Mr. Wright pulled away from the officer’s grip and got back into the driver’s seat.
Body camera and police dash camera videos that were played for the first time at trial showed a distraught Ms. Potter collapsing to the side of the road after the shooting, sobbing and telling her fellow officers that she had “grabbed the wrong gun,” adding an expletive.
“I’m going to go to prison,” she said at one point, later adding to Sergeant Johnson, “Just let me kill myself.”
Several minutes later, Sergeant Johnson took a gun from her holster and surreptitiously emptied it of ammunition before returning it to her, fearing that she might shoot herself.
Tim Arango contributed reporting.
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