MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A police sergeant at the scene when Daunte Wright was shot testified Friday that he was holding Wright’s right arm with both hands to prevent him from driving away, as prosecutors sought to build their case that suburban Minneapolis police officer Kim Potter acted unreasonably when she shot and killed him.
Potter, who resigned from the Brooklyn Center police force two days after she killed Wright, said she meant to draw her Taser when she shot the 20-year-old after pulling him over on April 11 and discovering there was a warrant for his arrest. She is charged with manslaughter.
Mychal Johnson, a supervisor of Potter’s at the time, testified that he was holding Wright’s right arm with both hands to prepare him for handcuffs, but that he dropped the arm when he heard Potter yell “Taser, Taser, Taser!”
Prosecutor Matthew Frank pointed out that Johnson, who is now a major in a sheriff’s department southeast of Minneapolis, did not draw his own Taser or gun. And Johnson testified that department policy dictated that Tasers shouldn’t be used on people operating vehicles to avoid incapacitating the person and causing an accident, though Wright’s car wasn’t moving when Potter shot him.
Potter, 49, is charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of Wright, who was pulled over for having expired license plate tags and an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror.
Neither charge requires proof that Potter intended to kill Wright. The first charge requires prosecutors to prove that she acted recklessly and the second requires them to prove culpable negligence.
Prosecutors say Potter was a veteran officer who had received extensive Taser training that included multiple warnings about not confusing it with a handgun.
Defense attorneys counter that Potter made a mistake but also would have been justified in shooting Wright if she had consciously chosen to do so because other officers, including Johnson, might have been dragged if Wright drove away.
Johnson testified under questioning by defense attorney Earl Gray that officers had acted properly by trying to arrest Wright after they discovered there was a warrant for his arrest that was issued after he missed a court date on a gross misdemeanor weapons possession charge. And Johnson acknowledged that officers had a duty to check on the welfare of the woman in the car because someone had obtained a restraining order against Wright.
Johnson agreed with Gray that Potter had the right to use force because he might have been injured or killed if Wright had driven away.
Frank noted that Johnson stood up as the car drove away instead of being dragged. He also noted that the car didn’t move until after Potter shot Wright.
After Gray earlier got Johnson to acknowledge that Potter had been marked as “exceeds expectations” in evaluations, Frank struck back by asking Johnson: “Does it exceed expectations to draw a gun and shoot somebody to death instead of their Taser?” The judge sustained an objection to the question.
Johnson testified that he opened Wright’s passenger-side door after Wright started to pull away from another officer, and that he leaned into the car, pushed the shift knob forward to make sure it was in park and reached for the keys to try to turn off the vehicle.
He said he then grabbed Wright’s right arm with both hands to prevent him from putting the car in drive and to handcuff him. Johnson said that at the time, he couldn’t see the other officer, Anthony Luckey, and didn’t know what Potter was doing.
Body camera footage shows that as Potter yells “Taser, Taser, Taser!,” Johnson is using both of his hands to hold Wright’s hand and arm.
Johnson testified that he heard the Taser command followed by a “loud pop,” which he initially thought was a Taser. Composite video appeared to show Johnson’s hands still in the car at the time the shot was fired.
After he was shot, the car drove down the street and crashed into another vehicle.
Jurors also saw the most extensive video yet of Potter’s reaction right after the shooting. Johnson’s body camera recorded him trying to comfort her after the shooting as she cries and rocks back and forth on the ground with her head in her hands.
“Kim, take a breath. Kim, you’re OK,” he tells Potter. He also says: “Kim, that guy was trying to take off with me in the car.”
Johnson is also shown taking her gun, for evidence, and putting his own in her holster. Later, after another officer expresses fear she might harm herself, Johnson retrieves his gun, empties it of bullets out of Potter’s view, and gives it back to her.
As portions of Johnson’s video were shown in court, Potter put her head in her hands at the defense table, shook slightly and cried. Wright’s mother, Katie Bryant, also cried quietly.
Potter is white and Wright was Black, and the shooting happened as former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was standing trial nearby in George Floyd’s death. Wright’s death set off days of protests and clashes with law enforcement in Brooklyn Center.
The case is being heard by a mostly white jury.
State sentencing guidelines call for just over seven years in prison upon conviction of first-degree manslaughter and four years for second-degree, though prosecutors have said they plan to push for even longer sentences.
Associated Press writer Tammy Webber contributed from Fenton, Michigan.