The light prison sentence handed down on Friday to a white former Minnesota police officer for killing 20-year-old black motorist Daunte Wright surprised some legal observers – although they said it was a “conviction” atypical” in an atypical case.
Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu handed former Central Brooklyn police officer Kim Potter a two-year sentence, well short of the 86 months required by prosecutors.
Chu landed much closer to the defense’s probation requests, arguing Potter didn’t want to fatally shoot Wright, mistakenly grabbing his service weapon instead of his Taser.
Sara Azari, a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, called Potter’s sentencing 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 warranted a lighter sentence for Potter, 49.
“When you have an atypical case like this – where, yes, you have the huge senseless loss of life, but you also have huge mitigating circumstances for the accused – then this justified deviation from this guideline range to essentially ensure the improvement of fair sentences,” Azari said. “I think it was a very difficult position for the judge.”
Although she called the case “tragic”, Candace McCoy, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, said Chu’s decision in the case was a matter of power. discretion provided by law. Judges can deviate from a presumptive sentence if the judge indicates on the record the reasons for the departure and those reasons are well explained, she said.
“I believe the judge did that in this case. I understand Daunte Wright’s family disagrees with the reasoning,” she said. “The guidelines say the judge can go lower if they give 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 thinks the judge will side more with prosecutors on the basis of 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.
“It’s one in a million cases. 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 times the cops want to draw their Taser and draw their gun to be a significant number. But otherwise, I can’t imagine that number being more than two or three a year, if at all. . Maybe it’s zero. So, I don’t know if it has a broad social significance. ”
Still, Ayesha Bell Hardaway, an associate professor of law at Case Western Reserve University and co-director of its Social Justice Institute, said she thinks Chu missed an opportunity to send a message to the police and his habits of use of force.
Jail would only be a valuable tool for defendants who risk repeating their crime – which is not the case here, Potter’s attorneys said.
“That’s not the only purpose of deterrence. Deterrence is also meant to send a message to potential offenders,” Hardaway said.
The sentencing “really sends no message to potential offenders, whether they are in the same position as Potter as police officers, as former officers, or others who engage in reckless driving by mistake. or not, and which accidentally results in the death of another. I think that was a significant missed opportunity or a misunderstanding on the part of this judge.
A lawyer for Wright’s family was particularly angered by Potter’s sentence over the 57-month sentence given to former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, a Somali immigrant. Noor was found guilty of shooting a 911 caller, an Australian woman, mistaking her for a threat to her partner.
Noor’s appeals attorney, Peter Wold, said he agrees with Chu’s handling of Potter’s case, but also sympathizes with the Wright family’s anger.
He stopped short of saying that race played a role in his black client’s heavy sentencing, compared to Potter’s punishment, but he added: “I don’t think that sounds good. ”
“Mohamed Noor was on a different series of facts and he shot an unarmed blonde woman,” Wold said.