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MINNEAPOLIS — Kim Potter, the former suburban Minneapolis police officer who said she confused her handgun for her Taser when she fatally shot Daunte Wright, was sentenced Friday to two years in prison, a penalty below state guidelines after the judge found mitigating factors warranted a lesser sentence.
Potter was convicted in December of first- and second-degree manslaughter in the April 11 killing of Wright, a 20-year-old Black motorist. She was sentenced only on the more serious charge in accordance with state law.
Judge Regina Chu said the lesser sentence was warranted because Potter was "in the line of duty and doing her job in attempting to lawfully arrest Daunte Wright" when she said she mistook her gun for her Taser. And, Chu said, Potter was trying to protect another officer who could have been dragged and seriously injured if Wright drove away.
"This is this is one of the saddest cases I've had on my 20 years on the bench," said Chu, who also said she received "hundreds and hundreds" of letters supporting Potter. "On the one hand, a young man was killed and on the other, a respected 26-year veteran police officer made a tragic error by pulling her handgun instead of her Taser."
Wright's mother, Katie Wright, said after the sentencing that Potter "murdered my son," adding: "Today the justice system murdered him all over again."
Speaking before the sentence was imposed, the tearful mother said she could never forgive Potter and would only refer to her as "the defendant" because Potter only referred to her 20-year-old son as "the driver" at trial.
"She never once said his name. And for that, I'll never be able to forgive you. And I'll never be able to forgive you for what you've stolen from us," Wright said.
"A police officer who was supposed to serve and protect so much took so much away from us ... My life and my world will never ever be the same again," she said, adding later: "Daunte Demetrius Wright, I will continue to fight in your name until driving while Black is no longer a death sentence."
Wright was killed after Brooklyn Center officers pulled him over for having expired license tags and an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. The shooting, which came in the midst of Derek Chauvin's trial on murder charges in George Floyd's killing, sparked several days of demonstrations outside the Brooklyn Center police station marked by tear gas and clashes between protesters and police.
Potter was convicted in December of first- and second-degree manslaughter in the April 11 killing.
Wright family attorney Ben Crump said they don't understand why such consideration was given to a white officer in the killing of a young Black man when a Black officer, Mohamed Noor, got a longer sentence for the killing of a white woman, Justine Ruszczyk Damond.
"What we see today is the legal system in Black and white."
But the judge said the cases are not the same as other high-profile killings by police.
"This is not a cop found guilty of murder for using his knee to pin down a person for 9 1/2 minutes as he gasped for air. This is not a cop found guilty of manslaughter for intentionally drawing his firearm and shooting across his partner and killing an unarmed woman who approached his squad," Chu said. "This is a cop who made a tragic mistake."
For someone with no criminal history, such as Potter, the state guidelines on first-degree manslaughter range from slightly more than six years to about 8 1/2 years in prison, with the presumptive sentence being just over seven years.
Prosecutors said the presumptive sentence was proper, but defense attorneys asked for a sentence below the guidelines, including a sentence of probation only.
"His life mattered, and that life was taken," Prosecutor Matt Frank said before sentencing. "His name is Daunte Wright. We have to say his name. He was not just a driver. He was a living human being. A life."
Defense attorney Paul Engh told the judge that Wright's death was "beyond tragic for everybody involved." But, he added: "This was an unintentional crime. It was an accident. It was a mistake."
He also said Potter would be willing to meet with Wright's family and to speak to police officers about Taser mixups.
Engh held up a box displaying what he said were among "thousands" of letters and cards of support for Potter.
"People took the time to write her," Engh said. "This is unheard of for a defendant. I dare say no one in this room has ever seen anything like this."
Evidence at Potter's trial showed officers learned he had an outstanding warrant for a weapons possession charge and they tried to arrest him when he pulled away. Video showed Potter shouted several times that she was going to use her Taser on Wright, but she had her gun in her hand and fired one shot into his chest.
Chu said Potter will serve two-thirds of her sentence, or 16 months in prison, with the rest on parole. She has earned credit for 58 days.
Potter has been at the state's women's prison in Shakopee since the guilty verdict. Her attorney said Friday that her mental and physical health has declined because she is isolated for her safety.
Wright's father and siblings also addressed the court to speak of their loss.
The mother of Wright's son, Chyna Whitaker, said Friday that Wright would never have a chance to play ball with his son, or see him go to school.
"My son shouldn't have to wear a 'rest in peace' shirt of his dad," Whitaker said.