A onetime Brooklyn Center police sergeant on the scene when officer Kimberly Potter fatally shot Daunte Wright last spring testified Friday that the law would have allowed her to use deadly force given the circumstances before them.
Mychal Johnson was Friday’s first witness in former Officer Potter’s manslaughter trial. He was Potter’s supervisor during the April 11 traffic stop. He left the department in October and is now a patrol major for the Goodhue County Sheriff’s Office just south of the Twin Cities.
“You said, ‘Kim, that guy was trying to take off with me in the car,’ ” defense attorney Earl Gray offered to Johnson during his more than 2 hours of testimony.
“Yes,” Johnson concurred.
“And if he had taken off with you in that car halfway,” Gray continued, “what would have happened to you? What do you think would be the worst that would happen?”
“Probably dragged,” Johnson answered before acknowledging under Gray’s questioning in Hennepin County District Court that he also risked being seriously injured or killed.
“And if that were the case,” Gray continued, “would an officer in your position, with Officer Potter trying to stop [Wright] from resisting with you and resisting [fellow Officer Anthony] Luckey, would it be fair for that officer to use a firearm to stop him?”
Johnson replied, “By state statute, yes.”
Gray summed up this line of questioning by asking, “So basically, based on these videos, and the conduct of Daunte Wright, as far as you’re concerned — and you were there — Kimberly Potter would have had a right to use a firearm, right?”
Johnson answered, “Yes.”
Prosecutor Matthew Frank countered by raising the need for officers to be aware of their surroundings before firing a weapon, pointing out how close Johnson, Potter and the vehicles’ occupants were to one another.
Johnson said he was no more than 6 inches to a foot from Wright and had his body leaning on the passenger, Alayna Albrecht-Payton.
“Could [Potter] have shot you?” Frank asked, and Johnson agreed.
Johnson also agreed with Frank that the car drove off only because Potter fired her gun and after he had already gotten out of the vehicle.
Judge Regina Chu ended proceedings about 2 hours early due to the snowy weather’s potential for slowing travel for the jurors and others attending the trial.
Earlier Friday, Johnson testified as to the immediate aftermath of the shooting, including exchanging guns with an extremely distraught Potter to preserve evidence, while later unloading the one he gave her.
Under 80 minutes of testimony in Hennepin County District Court, Johnson recounted his role at the scene of the shooting including when he tried to keep the car from leaving and assist with Wright’s arrest on a weapons warrant.
Potter shook and cried as portions of Mychal Johnson’s body camera were first shown that included the immediate aftermath of the shooting, according to a pool report. At the defense table, she put her head in her hands, shook slightly and cried. As that scene was played again minutes later, she again cried and put her head to her hand. She also quickly shook her head several times, as if trying to shake an image from her head. Several minutes later, she wiped her eyes with one of her hands. Wright’s mother, Katie Bryant also cried quietly as the video was played, and a friend’s hand.
Johnson testified that his role changed dramatically immediately after the shooting.
“I heard a loud pop,” Johnson testifed, adding, “I thought at the time is was a Taser.”
Johnson said he heard the crash down the street within a handful of seconds. “I knew a shot had been fired, but I didn’t know if he was hit.”
As other officers converged on the crash scene, Johnson stayed with Potter to console her.
“Due to her mental state of not knowing what she might do, I knew that her firearm was a piece of evidence at that time,” Johnson said, based on a concern expressed to him by another officer. “So I removed her firearm and put it in my holster and put my gun in her holster, just so that that evidence was preserved,” Johnson said.
He is heard in court on his body camera video saying, “Kim, I’m gonna take this but give you mine, OK? … I’ll give you my gun, I just want to hang on to yours.”
An inconsolable Potter repeated “Oh, my God” over and over, as well as saying “I don’t know what happened” and “I’m going to prison.”
Johnson tried to reassure her, saying, “We’ll get it all figured out, OK?”
Johnson testified that another officer, Colleen Fricke, expressed concern that Potter would harm herself, so he discreetly took his gun back from Potter, unloaded it without her noticing, and returned it to her.
Johnson testified that he never went to the crash scene down the road where Wright was eventually pronounced dead.
“I knew that we had two scenes, we did have shots fired and were going to need additional help no matter what it was that had happened,” he said. “It meant that I needed somebody to take over as the scene supervisor once that was possible because I wouldn’t’ be able to do all the things that needed to be done as being an involved officer.”
Friday’s final witnesses were Acting Brooklyn Police Chief Tony Gruenig and Charles Michael Phill of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which led the investigation into Wright’s death.
Gruenig, who took over the top post when Tim Gannon was fired days after the shooting, answered questions about his arrival at the scene and what he learned from officers while there for several hours. Phill said he was summoned by Gruenig and received a brief overview from him before directing his agency’s personnel to collect evidence and interview anyone who might have useful information about the case.
On Thursday, the woman who was in Wright’s car when he was fatally shot testified through tears about his last moments, recalling using her belt and cloth to stanch the flow of blood from his chest.
“I replay that image in my head daily,” said 20-year-old Alayna Albrecht-Payton, who had dated Wright for about three weeks.
The prosecution also called witnesses who revealed that police waited several minutes to extract Wright from his car and begin life-saving measures. Prosecutors attempted to show that officers who arrived as backup encountered uncertainty not knowing at first that Wright had been shot by an officer.
Also Thursday, there were battles between prosecutors and defense attorneys, who objected to evidence and testimony in the state’s case, citing what they saw as their prejudicial and repetitive nature.
One of Potter’s attorneys, Paul Engh, unsuccessfully asking Hennepin County District Judge Regina Chu to declare a mistrial at the end of the day after jurors had been dismissed.
“The issue in our case here is the thought process of Kimberly Potter at the moment that she yelled, ‘Taser! Taser! Taser!’ and pulled the trigger of her gun,” Engh said. “We have spent the day, rather, on a [traffic] accident that was caused by Daunte Wright’s excessive speeding … I didn’t see any evidence directed towards the proof of guilt here today, but rather, evidence of sordid pictures and prejudicial impacts that had little relevance.”
Wright, 20, had been pulled over for expired vehicle registration tabs and an air freshener on his rear-view mirror when police discovered he had an arrest warrant in a gross misdemeanor weapons case.
Potter shot Wright once he broke free of an officer attempting to arrest him and got back in his car. Wright’s car sped down the street after the shooting, crashing head-on into a moving vehicle with a couple in their 80s.
Potter’s defense says she meant to fire her Taser. Prosecutors say her reckless actions touched other lives beyond Wright’s. “Her conduct presented danger to more than just the individuals in the immediate area,” prosecutor Matthew Frank said.
Frank argued that some of the testimony Engh objected to was being presented so that in the event of a conviction, prosecutors can use the evidence as “aggravating factors” to request a sentence for longer than recommended by state guidelines.
Chu said denied Engh’s request. Potter, 49, is on trial on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter.