First-degree manslaughter in this case means prosecutors alleged that Potter caused Wright’s death while committing a misdemeanor — the “reckless handling or use of a firearm so as to endanger the safety of another with such force and violence that death or great bodily harm to any person was reasonably foreseeable.”
The second-degree manslaughter charge alleged that she caused his death “by her culpable negligence,” meaning that Potter “caused an unreasonable risk and consciously took a chance of causing death or great bodily harm” to Wright, while using or possessing a firearm.
Neither charge required prosecutors to prove Potter intended to kill Wright, and they pointed that out to the jury during opening statements.
Defense attorney Paul Engh seemed to push against that during his opening, telling the jury that Potter didn’t know she was holding a gun when she fired, adding: “It’s not just shooting somebody, that’s not the crime. It’s being consciously aware of some kind of fact.”
The attorney general’s office added the first-degree manslaughter charge after it took over the case, though it fell short of the murder charge that Wright’s family and activists wanted.
The maximum for first-degree manslaughter is 15 years; for second-degree, it’s 10 years. But Minnesota judges follow sentencing guidelines that normally call for less — just over seven years for first-degree, and four years for second-degree.
Under Minnesota law, defendants are sentenced only on the most serious conviction if multiple counts involve the same act and the same victim.
Prosecutors have said they will seek a longer sentence due to aggravating factors, which is what they did in former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial for killing George Floyd.
The longest sentences that could conceivably stick on appeal are double the top of the guidelines range. But that’s more than the statutory maximum of 15 years for first-degree manslaughter, so 15 years would be the cap for Potter if she’s convicted. The realistic maximum on the lesser charge would be 9 1/2 years.
Presuming good behavior, Minnesota offenders typically serve two-thirds of their time in prison and one-third on supervised release.
The judge in Chauvin’s case sentenced him to 22 1/2 years for second-degree unintentional murder. The presumptive sentence was 12 1/2 years. But Judge Peter Cahill found several aggravating factors, including that Chauvin abused his position of authority and treated Floyd with particular cruelty, and that several children witnessed the crime live. He also said Chauvin knew that kneeling on Floyd’s neck was dangerous.
More recently, Judge Kathryn Quaintance resentenced former Minneapolis Officer Mohamed Noor to four years and nine months in prison for second-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of Justine Damond Ruszczyk, which was at the top of the guidelines’ range. She said she did so because Noor shot “across the nose” of his partner and endangered others. She couldn’t sentence him to more because prosecutors did not request an “upward departure” from the sentencing guidelines.
Quaintance originally sentenced Noor to 12 1/2 years for third-degree murder, which was what the guidelines called for, but the Minnesota Supreme Court later clarified the definition of third-degree murder and sent the case back for resentencing only on the manslaughter charge.