Will "Wrong Gun" Plea Work In Daunte Wright Case?

Hennepin County Sheriff via AP

Once again, a police officer in the Minneapolis area is going to go on trial for killing a black man. Once again, we expect to see a lot of media attention focused on a trial–there’s a lot of that going around right now–and we’ll likely see the armchair experts opine on things they know little about.

But is the death of Daunte Wright manslaughter, as the prosecution alleges?

Or, will the officer’s claim that she made a simple mistake actually hold water?

When a suburban Minneapolis police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright in April, her reaction on body-camera video seemed to instantly establish the key facts of the case: “I grabbed the wrong (expletive) gun,” Kim Potter said. “I’m going to go to prison.”

But legal experts say a conviction for Potter, who says she meant to pull her Taser, isn’t as certain as it might seem — at least on the most serious charge she faces, first-degree manslaughter. Jury selection begins Tuesday.

Potter, who resigned two days after the shooting, says she made an innocent mistake when she reached for her pistol instead of her Taser. But prosecutors, including the leader of the team that got Chauvin convicted for murder, say Wright’s death was manslaughter and that Potter, an experienced officer who was trained to know better, should go to prison.

The big questions for the jury will be whether Potter’s actions rose to recklessness or culpable negligence, as the law requires. Defense attorneys also argue that Wright was responsible for his own death because he tried to drive off from a traffic stop and could have dragged an officer to his death if Potter hadn’t intervened.

“What we have basically is an innocent mistake,” defense attorney Earl Gray said in a preview of his arguments. “That she wasn’t culpably negligent and that she didn’t cause the death of Mr. Wright. He caused his death himself.”

The argument is that Wright endangered officers by trying to escape arrest after Potter and another officer pulled him over for an expired tag and learned of an arrest warrant for Wright over a weapons charge.

And that may well be true. After all, the video of the incident makes it clear that Wright was trying to get away by getting back in his car, a potentially lethal weapon.

However, the video also shows that Wright didn’t appear to be trying to hit any of the officers–though that may have changed–and that Potter clearly didn’t intend to deploy her firearm.

As the above-linked article notes:

Prosecutors allege that Potter committed first-degree manslaughter by causing Wright’s death while committing a misdemeanor crime, namely recklessly handling a gun, when death was reasonably foreseeable. The second-degree manslaughter count alleges that she acted with culpable negligence. Neither charge requires the intent to kill.

The fact that she pulled her gun instead of her taser may well rise to the level of culpable negligence.

After all, there’s a reason many departments require tasers to be worn in a completely different manner than firearms. The idea is to prevent this from happening. It’s unclear if Potter’s department had such a policy in place, but since we’ve not heard one way or the other, I’d imagine it didn’t. That doesn’t absolve Potter, though.

Honestly, I don’t see Potter walking away on this one. Yes, Daunte Wright was a wanted criminal who was caught during a routine traffic stop. Yes, he screwed up by the numbers by trying to get away from the police when they were trying to arrest him. But should he have died from that?

We’ll have to see how the case actually goes once it’s in court.