By STEVE KARNOWSKI and AMY FORLITI Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Attorneys began sifting through potential jurors Tuesday in the trial of a suburban Minneapolis police officer who says she meant to use her Taser instead of her gun when she killed Daunte Wright, quizzing the pool about their attitudes on policing, protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Before the process began, prospective jurors in former Brooklyn Center Officer Kim Potter’s manslaughter trial responded to questionnaires similar to those used this year in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial for the killing of George Floyd. Roughly 200 people were asked what they knew about the Potter case, their impressions of her and Wright, and their views on protests and policing in the Minneapolis area in recent years.
Potter shot Wright as he tried to drive away from a traffic stop on April 11 — a time when Chauvin’s trial was underway and tensions were high in the Minneapolis area. Wright’s death sparked several nights of protests in Brooklyn Center, reviving painful memories of the sometimes violent unrest that erupted after Floyd’s death in May 2020.
The first juror to be seated Tuesday, a man who said he is a medical editor, said he has a very unfavorable view of the “blue lives matter” slogan that has emerged in recent years. He said he believes it’s less about supporting police than about countering the Black Lives Matter movement.
But he also said he opposes the movement to abolish or defund the police.
“I absolutely believe there’s a need for change,” he said. “But I think defund the police sends a message, a negative message. … I don’t agree with that message and I don’t agree with the approach that was taken to defund the police.”
Among the potential jurors to be dismissed was a woman who said on her questionnaire that Potter should have known the difference between her gun and her Taser and a man who described Black Lives Matter as “Marxist Communist.”
That man also said of Wright: “I think if he would’ve listened to the (police) directions, he would still be with us.”
Jurors’ names were being withheld and were not shown on the livestream of the trial, a rarity in Minnesota. Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu set aside six days for jury selection, with opening statements Dec. 8.
Potter’s defense team can dismiss up to five jurors without giving a reason, compared with three for the prosecution, which is standard in Minnesota courts. In Chauvin’s case, where the pretrial publicity was much more intense, the defense was allowed 15 strikes versus nine for prosecutors. Neither side needs to justify such a peremptory strike unless the other side argues it was because of a juror’s race, ethnicity or gender.
Potter said she made an innocent mistake when she shot Wright. She and two other officers at the scene, including one she was training, moved to arrest Wright after learning there was a warrant out for him on a gross misdemeanor charge.
As the 20-year-old Black man tried to drive off, Potter, who is white, can be heard on her body camera video saying “Taser, Taser Taser” before she fired, followed by “I grabbed the wrong (expletive) gun.” The video shows her holding her handgun for about five seconds before firing.
Prosecutors charged Potter, who resigned two days after the shooting, with first- and second-degree manslaughter, saying she was an experienced officer who was trained to know better. The most serious charge requires prosecutors to prove recklessness; the lesser only requires them to prove culpable negligence. Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines call for a sentence of just over seven years on the first-degree manslaughter count, and four years for second-degree. But prosecutors have said they’ll seek a longer sentence.
Attorneys who aren’t involved in the case expected both sides to give jurors a thorough vetting, as they did in Chauvin’s trial. The pool will come from Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis and is the state’s most populous county. Hennepin is 74% white, 14% Black, 7.5% Asian and 7% Latino, according to census data. Brooklyn Center is one of the most diverse cities in the state, at 46% white, 29% Black, 16% Asian and 15% Latino.
California civil rights attorney John Burris, who won a $2.8 million settlement for the family of a man killed by a transit officer in Oakland who went to prison for grabbing his gun instead of a Taser in 2009, said jurors typically give police the benefit of the doubt. But he said times have changed since Floyd was killed. If the jury selected for Potter is as diverse as Chauvin’s jury, which was half people of color, he predicted that they’ll take a thoughtful approach.
Mike Brandt, a local attorney, said that if he was on the defense team, he’d rather have the case tried in a rural or suburban county. He said Hennepin tends to be “more on the liberal side,” with more people who support holding police accountable.
Alfreda Daniels Juasemai, an activist in Brooklyn Center, said Chauvin’s conviction bolstered faith in the courts. She’s hoping for a conviction for Potter, too.
“I have lived in this country long enough to know that getting my hopes up is not going to be good for my mental health,” said Daniels Juasemai, who emigrated from Liberia in 2006. “I do hope that Kim Potter is guilty of something at this point, but I am trying so hard to not expect anything.”
Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative reporter Mohamed Ibrahim contributed to this story.