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Jack DeVine / January 11, 2022

The Potter Verdict: Justice or Retribution?

In today’s toxic climate, true justice is hard to find.

Lost in the shuffle of the Christmas holiday news cycle — and largely ignored thereafter — was the December 23 manslaughter conviction of former police officer Kim Potter, by a Minneapolis jury, for the shooting death of Daunte Wright.

I have no complaint about the jurors or their verdict. A unanimous finding by a jury of one’s peers is the gold standard for resolution of any criminal indictment. The jury deliberated for four days and clearly had difficulty standing in judgment over a consequential but instantaneous human error; they probably are as troubled as I am with the trial’s outcome.

No, my deep unease is why the jury was ever placed in that situation in the first place, and whether racial factors pre-ordained a tragic footnote to a tragic event.

The backstory: Kim Potter was a 26-year police veteran with a spotless record. She had never fired her service weapon or taser in the line of duty. And she’s white. Daunte Wright was a 20-year-old black man, the driver of a car stopped by police for an expired tag.

It all went upside down in a heartbeat. Upon learning that a warrant was outstanding for the driver’s arrest, Potter and her partner attempted to detain him. Wright resisted and broke free. Potter, acting as trained, pulled her taser from its holster on her left hip, yelled “Taser! Taser!” and pulled the trigger. Except that it wasn’t her taser — in the chaos of the moment, she’d mistakenly grabbed her service pistol (on the other hip). Her single shot killed Daunte Wright.

A momentary lapse under intense pressure, and a human life was lost.

Potter instantly recognized her error and screamed “Holy s**t, I’ve shot him!”. Overcome with grief, she collapsed. The next day, she resigned from the police force, foregoing her planned retirement and pension.

But details aside, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black victim. In today’s toxic climate, the colors mean everything.

With so many indicators of an accidental event, Potter’s horrendous error could have been addressed by administrative action. But it happened on April 11th, during the Derek Chauvin trial (taking place in the same Minneapolis courtroom as Potter’s trial nine months later). The DA indicted Potter for manslaughter, understandable given the depth of public emotion at the time — but in so doing, he dumped on a future jury the enormous burden of determining liability for Potter’s tragic mistake.

At no point in the entire process was there any evidence to suggest that Daunte Wright’s death was anything but accidental. The prosecuting attorney acknowledged as much, referring to the incident as a “colossal blunder.”

Policing is inherently dangerous. Routine actions are never actually routine. Traffic stops, 911 responses, and domestic disputes can go bad, horribly and suddenly. At some point, our judgments of the actions of police officers must take into account the harsh realities of the job that we expect them to do flawlessly. How arrogant it is for a prosecuting attorney or “expert” witness, in a quiet courtroom and with the crystal clarity of hindsight, to opine how Kim Potter should have reacted in the instant of sky-high stress.

This past week, on the anniversary of the Capitol riot, I was struck by the stark contrast between the Daunte Wright shooting and the Ashli Babbitt shooting one year ago by Capitol Police Lt. Michael Byrd. The Babbitt shooting was no accident; Byrd saw her climbing through a broken window, so he shot at close range.

He explained afterwards that he’d shot as a “last resort.” But Babbitt was an unarmed trespasser, one among many, and his was the only shot fired that day. Did he panic? The Byrd shooting was investigated internally, he was commended for saving “countless lives,” and the case was closed. Two unnecessary shooting deaths: in one case earning commendation, in the other, a felony conviction and jail.

The public reaction to the Potter verdict was as unsettling as the verdict itself. Surely the jurors had known that an innocent verdict would trigger rioting in the street. Thankfully, that was avoided. But what happened instead — revelry, celebration, even a brass band — was equally troubling.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison remarked that the trial’s verdict delivered accountability, not justice — Wright’s life had been taken, unnecessarily. But putting Potter in a jail cell, perhaps for years, does not in any way diminish the tragedy of his death — it simply adds a second, wholly unnecessary tragedy, another life destroyed.

In a sense, Ellison was right; the Potter conviction was not justice. It was retribution. That will never be the path to true racial justice.

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