The light prison sentence issued Friday to a white former Minnesota police officer for killing Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black motorist, surprised some legal observers — though they said it was an "atypical" sentencing in an atypical case.
Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu meted out a two-year punishment to former Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter, well short of the 86 months sought by prosecutors.
Chu landed much closer to the defense requests for probation, arguing that Potter didn't mean to fatally shoot Wright, mistakenly grabbing her service weapon instead of her Taser.
Sara Azari, a criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles, called Potter's sentence "a slap on the wrist" and a "spit in the face of the Wright family."
But she went on to explain the mitigating circumstances that supported a lighter punishment for Potter, 49.
“When you have an atypical case like this one — where, yes, you have the tremendous senseless loss of life, but you also have tremendous mitigating circumstances for the defendant — then that justified departure from that guideline range to basically ensure enhancing fair sentences,” Azari said. “I think this was a really tough position for the judge.”
Though she called the case “tragic,” Candace McCoy, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, said Chu's decision in this case was within the discretion provided by law. Judges may depart from a presumed sentence if the judge states on the record the reasons for that departure and those reasons are well explained, she said.
“I do believe the judge did that in this case. I understand that Daunte Wright’s family disagrees with the reasoning,” she said. “The guidelines say the judge can go lower if the judge gives well-explained reasons and the judges’ reasons here are not unreasonable.”
Chu's position on the bench is an elected one and NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos said he had believed the judge would side more with the prosecutors based on voter accountability.
Nonetheless, Cevallos said of Chu: “I thought the judge got it right.”
“I was surprised at 24 months,” he added. “I would have thought maybe three years?”
Cevallos called the case a statistical anomaly.
"This is a one-in-a-million case. When people say, 'What does this case mean?' and my answer is always, 'Nothing.'" he said. "That's unless you find a statistic of the number of cases where cops mean to draw their Taser and draw their firearm to be a significant number. But otherwise, I can't imagine that number is more than two or three a year, if any. Maybe it's zero. So, I don't know if it has any broad social meaning."
Still, Ayesha Bell Hardaway, an associate law professor at Case Western Reserve University and the co-director of its Social Justice Institute, said she believed Chu missed a chance to send a message to police and their use-of-force habits.
Prison time would only be a valuable tool for defendants who are at risk of repeating their crime — which isn’t the case here, Potter's lawyers said.
"That’s not the sole purpose of deterrence. Deterrence is also meant to send a message to would-be offenders, as well,” Hardaway said.
The sentencing "really does not send a message to would-be offenders, whether they are similarly situated to Potter as police officers, as former officers or other individuals who engage in reckless conduct mistakenly or not, and that accidentally leads to the death of another. I think that that was a significant missed opportunity or misunderstanding by this judge.”
A lawyer for Wright's family was particularly angered by Potter’s sentence in comparison to the 57-month punishment for former Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor, a Somali immigrant. Noor was convicted of shooting a 911 caller, an Australian woman, mistaking her as a threat to his partner.
Noor’s appellate lawyer Peter Wold said he agreed with Chu's handling of Potter's case, but also sympathized with the Wright family's anger.
He stopped short of saying race played a role in the heavy sentencing of his Black client, compared to the punishment for Potter, but he added: "I don't think it looks good."
"Mohamed Noor was in a different set of facts going on and he shot an unarmed blonde woman," Wold said.