Behind a Minn. Judge's Sentencing Decision in the Case of Kim Potter, Officer Who Fatally Shot Daunte Wright

Judge Regina Chu spent several minutes speaking about the complexity of Potter's case before handing her a controversial two-year sentence, to be split between prison and probation

Kim Potter sentencing
Judge Regina Chu. Photo: Court TV via AP

A tense and emotional trial officially came to an end Friday when former Minnesota police officer Kim Potter was sentenced for the fatal 2021 shooting of Daunte Wright, an unarmed Black man killed during a traffic stop.

In December, Potter was found guilty of first- and second-degree manslaughter for firing a firearm instead of a Taser when Wright resisted arrest. The conviction comes with state sentencing guidelines of roughly seven years, with the presiding judge granted ultimate discretion to raise or lower the sentence based on the circumstances of the case.

Regina Chu, a judge whose service to Hennepin County is approaching a 20-year milestone, was tasked with weighing the facts of the case and determining Potter's fate.

On Friday, she handed down a controversial sentence of two years — well below the state's recommended sentence — to be carried out in two phases: 16 months in prison, and eight months of supervised release.

Immediately after the hearing, prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump held a press conference expressing disappointment, noting that "there are Black people in prison serving greater time for selling marijuana, which is legal in most states, than this police officer got for killing this young Black man."

In a written statement, Crump said, "The judge's comments at sentencing showed a clear absence of compassion for the victim in this tragedy and were devastating to the family. Judge Chu's comments about Potter resembled those of a job recommendation and not that of a senseless and preventable death of a promising life."

Before revealing her decision, Chu gave a lengthy, tearful speech about her decision and why she believes it's the best middle-ground of doing both the Wright family and Potter justice. Recognizing the divisiveness of the case, she calmly requested that people on both sides try their best to understand her reasoning.

"This is one of the saddest cases I've had on the 20 years on my bench," she began. "On the one hand, a young man was killed, and on the other, a respected, 26-year police officer made a tragic error by pulling her handgun instead of her Taser."

Speaking to loved ones of Wright, Chu said: "I have been profoundly moved by the comments of the Wright family. Daunte was very loved. His son has lost a father. And Mr. and Mrs. Wright, I cannot begin to understand the grief of losing a child. I'm so sorry for your loss."

She then spoke on Potter, saying she "honorably served her community for 26 years as a police officer. She was a respected officer and consistently went over and above the call of duty."

Chu said she received innumerable letters during the trial requesting a variety of outcomes, but that through the community's words, she was able to paint a fuller picture of Potter as someone who spent several years lifting up her community prior her fatal error.

Kim Potter sentencing
Protestors in support of Kim Potter stand outside the courthouse steps. Stephen Maturen/Getty

"This case is highly unusual. The other officer cases tried in this court are distinguishable," she said, referencing previous Hennepin County trials in recent history that were the subject of unrest.

"This is not a cop found guilty of murder for using his knee to pin down a person for nine and a half minutes as he gasped for air," she said, referencing Derek Chauvin's cruel murder of George Floyd that sparked a nationwide reckoning on the issue of racially charged police brutality.

"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," she said, referencing Mohamed Noor's 2017 killing of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 911 caller reporting an assault.

"This is a cop who made a tragic mistake."

Potter's lawyers had requested that Chu allow their client to evade prison time and serve her sentence exclusively on probation instead. In the name of recognizing the damage Potter inflicted on her community, Chu wasn't willing to go that far.

"This has been an extremely difficult decision," Chu said before asking Potter to rise for her sentencing. "In making my decision, I look to the purposes of incarceration. There are four: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation."

She said that three of the four do not apply to Potter's situation.

"Retribution, or serving time as a way for a convicted person to pay for the harm inflicted on a victim, is the sole purpose that applies in this case," she said. "And in this case, a young man was killed because Officer Potter was reckless. There rightfully should be some accountability."

Kim Potter sentencing
A protestor stands outside the courthouse in support of holding Kim Potter accountable at her sentencing. Stephen Maturen/Getty

In handing down the two-year sentence, Chu pleaded with the public to accept her judgment as something that was not decided thoughtlessly.

"That I granted a significant downward departure does not in any way diminish Daunte Wright's life," she said. "His life mattered."

She concluded her speech with a quote from President Barack Obama: "Learning to stand in somebody else's shoes to see through their eyes, that's how peace begins."

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison released a statement about Chu's sentence that claimed nobody wins in Friday's decision.

"I accept her judgment. I urge everyone to accept her judgment. I don't ask you to agree with her decision, which takes nothing away from the truth of the jury's verdict," he said. "I know it is hurtful to loved ones of Daunte Wright. I ask that we remember the beauty of Daunte Wright, to keep his memory in our hearts, and to know that no number of years in prison could ever capture the wonder of this young man's life."

He said that one day he hopes Potter takes an active role in becoming part of the solution that prevents future deaths.

"Ms. Potter could make a powerful contribution. She could have a profound impact on police officers, departments, and manufacturers about the urgency of ending weapons confusion and saving lives," he said. "It will be up to her to show that she can do this with true remorse and make true amends. I hope she can."

"Accountability is the first step on the road to justice," he said. "But justice is more than accountability. It is also compassion, mercy, and healing, both individual and generational. Healing allows us to see the humanity in each one of us — everyone included, no exceptions."

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