The issue of race was barely mentioned during the trial of Kim Potter, a former police officer from suburban Minneapolis who was convicted of manslaughter for killing Daunte Wright after he said he mistook her handgun for his Taser.
But Wright’s family members and numerous activists say the murder of the 20-year-old black motorist was always about race, from the moment the police decided to arrest him, until the moment when a judge sentenced Potter to a two-year sentence, which family members decried as giving more consideration to the white defendant than to the black victim.
“What we see today is the American legal system in black and white,” Ben Crump, an attorney for Wright’s family, said after Friday’s sentencing.
Wright was killed April 11 after Brooklyn Center officers arrested him for having expired license tags and an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror, violations that civil rights activists say are being used as pretext to stop black motorists.
Officers discovered that Wright had a warrant for possession of weapons and they attempted to arrest him, but he walked away. The video shows Potter, who is white, yelled several times that she would Taser Wright, but she had her gun drawn and fired once into his chest.
Many felt the traffic stoppage was the result of racial profiling and should not have happened. The shooting, which occurred while Derek Chauvin was on trial in Minneapolis for murder in the killing of George Floyd, sparked several days of protests outside the Brooklyn Center police station marked by tear gas and clashes between protesters and policemen.
Family members and activists cheered in December when a predominantly white jury found Potter guilty of first and second degree manslaughter. This week they felt justice had been snatched away when Judge Regina Chu sentenced Potter to two years, well short of the alleged sentence of just over seven years she was given under state guidelines.
“The judge overstepped her bounds and undermined any legitimacy of the legal process that unfolded in this case,” said civil rights lawyer and activist Nekima Levy Armstrong. She said the phrase “re-emphasizes why many black people distrust the justice system at all levels.”
Levy Armstrong said the sentence essentially reversed the jury’s decision to hold Potter accountable and that Chu’s behavior and comments during sentencing stoked suspicion and showed how black people are viewed in the justice system primarily as defendants rather than as victims.
“The judge made Kimberly Potter look like the victim,” she said.
Chu called it “one of the saddest cases” she had seen.
“On the one hand,” the judge said, “a young man was killed and on the other, a respected 26-year-old veteran police officer made a tragic mistake by drawing his handgun instead of his Taser.”
Chu said “the evidence is undisputed” that Potter had no intention of using his gun, which made the case less serious than other recent murders by police officers. She asked those who disagreed to try to sympathize with Potter, and seemed to choke and wipe away a tear when she said Potter didn’t mean to hurt anyone.
Ayesha Bell Hardaway, associate professor of law and co-director of the Social Justice Institute at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said the level of kindness Chu showed Potter was remarkable.
“If it’s not about race, she certainly made it clear that she has a high regard for the public service that police officers give in our society,” Hardaway said. She said white people have long been held in high regard in the justice system and “we saw those realities play out as the judge handed down her sentence.”
Hardaway also said the judge’s words — and the fact that she got emotional when announcing the sentence — “from a professional standpoint, that’s something you wouldn’t want to see.”
Levy Armstrong said Chu showed a lack of empathy for the Wright family, especially when encouraging those who listened to him to walk in Potter’s shoes. And she said one of the main reasons Chu cited for breaking state guidelines – saying the case wasn’t as serious as other high-profile police killings because it was a mistake – was “dishonest and irresponsible, not to mention insensitive”.
Johnathon McClellan, president of the Minnesota Justice Coalition, called the sentence unfair, especially when compared to what he called “many blacks, browns and poor people” sent to prison to make examples. He was particularly irritated that Chu pleaded for empathy by invoking a quote from Barack Obama “as if it would make you and others sleep better at night.”
Rachel Moran, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas, said she could understand why the judge thought two years was appropriate; Potter is not at risk of reoffending, she will serve approximately 16 months of her prison sentence and the shooting was ruled a mistake.
But Moran said the public is used to seeing heavy prison sentences, not a judge showing leniency.
“Where it gets so painful is that that mercy isn’t often shown to a lot of other people,” Moran said. When you think about people getting more jail time for drug-related offenses, “it’s really hard to swallow two years for someone who killed someone.”
“I think the sentence might be fair, and it might still feel horribly unfair to people who are active in the community and who have seen the pain and trauma of heavier prison sentences” for offenses that caused less than wrong, Moran said.
Family members and activists have raised the case of Mohamed Noor, a Somali American who was a police officer in Minneapolis when he killed a white woman, Justine Ruszczyk Damond, in 2017. Noor was sentenced to more prison time than Potter, on a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter.
Moran said the sentences were decided by different judges who thought in different ways, and there may be justifications for both outcomes. But the conduct was similar, and the reality is that the black officer received a harsher sentence.
Delores Jones-Brown, who teaches at Howard University in Washington and Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., said the judge clearly accepted Potter’s assertion that shooting Wright was a mistake.
“There’s something about being a 26-year-old veteran and shooting a young man in the chest with your gun and pretending you thought you were using your Taser that doesn’t sit well with me,” said Jones Brown.
She said she was troubled that the media accepted Potter’s account as the correct version of what happened “and clearly that account is the one that dominated the day in sentencing.”
Find full AP coverage of the Daunte Wright case: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-daunte-wright