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Wright's family wants stiffer charge for Minnesota ex-cop

BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn. — Daunte Wright’s family members joined with community leaders Thursday in calling for more serious charges against the white former police officer who fatally shot him, comparing her case to the murder charge brought against a Black officer who killed a white woman in nearby Minneapolis.

Former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter was charged with second-degree manslaughter in Sunday’s shooting of Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop. The former police chief in Brooklyn Center, a majority nonwhite suburb, said Potter mistakenly fired her handgun when she meant to use her Taser. Both the chief and Potter resigned Tuesday.

Potter — who was released on $100,000 bond hours after her arrest Wednesday — appeared alongside her attorney, Earl Gray, at her initial appearance Thursday over Zoom, saying very little. Gray kept his camera on himself for most of the hearing, swiveling it to show Potter only briefly. Her next court appearance was set for May 17.

Wright’s family members and protesters who have confronted police all week since his death say there’s no excuse for the shooting.

“Unfortunately, there’s never going to be justice for us,” Wright’s mother, Katie Wright, said at a news conference Thursday. “Justice isn’t even a word to me. I do want accountability.”

Wright family attorney Ben Crump said “full accountability, to get equal justice” is all the family wants — “nothing more, nothing less.”

Crump and other advocates for Wright point to the 2017 case of Mohamed Noor. The Black former Minneapolis police officer fatally shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a white woman who was dual citizen of the U.S. and Australia, in the alley behind her home after she called 911 to report what she thought was a woman being assaulted.

Noor was convicted of third-degree murder in addition to second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 12½ years in prison. Potter’s charge carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence. Intent isn’t a necessarily component of either charge. A key difference is that third-degree murder requires someone to act with a “depraved mind,” a term that has been the subject of legal disputes, but includes an act eminently dangerous to others, performed without regard for human life.

Noor testified that he fired to protect his partner’s life after hearing a loud bang on the squad car and seeing a woman at his partner’s window raising her arm. Prosecutors criticized Noor for shooting without seeing a weapon or Damond’s hands.

Many critics of the police believe the race of those involved in the Wright shooting played a role in which charges were brought.

“If the officer was Black, perhaps even a minority man, and the victim was a young, white female affluent kid, the chief would have fired him immediately and the county prosecutor would have charged him with murder, without a doubt,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Potter could have easily been charged with third-degree murder, which carries a 25-year maximum sentence, said Rachel Moran, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. But she noted that one difference between the Noor and Potter cases is that Potter will likely argue using the gun was a mistake, while Noor never said he didn’t intend to use his weapon.

“This is kind of the compromise charge, which isn’t to say it’s not serious. It is,” Moran said. “But they’re not reaching for the most serious charge they could theoretically file. They’re also not washing their hands and saying she has no criminal liability.”

The prosecutor who brought the case, Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, did not return messages seeking comment.

Wright’s death came as the broader Minneapolis area awaits the outcome of the trial for Derek Chauvin, one of four officers charged in George Floyd’s death last May. Crump pointed to that trial as having the potential to set a precedent for “police officers being held accountable and sent to prison for killing Black people.”

Police say Wright was pulled over for expired tags, but they sought to arrest him after discovering he had an outstanding warrant. The warrant was for his failure to appear in court on charges that he fled from officers and possessed a gun without a permit during an encounter with Minneapolis police in June.

Potter, a 26-year veteran, was training another officer at the time.

Body camera video shows Wright struggling with police after they say they’re going to arrest him, before Potter pulls her gun. Potter is heard yelling “Taser!” three times before she fires and then says, “Holy [expletive], I shot him.”

Naisha Wright, Daunte Wright’s aunt, grew emotional at news conference with other family members, saying, “Can we get a conviction? Can we get something? Manslaughter?”

She held up a photo of a Taser. “This is a Taser, but no,” she said, displaying a photo of a handgun. “My nephew was killed with this — a Glock.”

The criminal complaint noted that Potter holstered her handgun on the right side and her Taser on the left. To remove the Taser — which is yellow and has a black grip — Potter would have to use her left hand, the complaint said.

Experts say cases of officers mistakenly firing their gun instead of a Taser are rare, usually less than once a year nationwide.

Wright’s funeral will be April 22 at the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, his attorney said.

Derek Chauvin declines to testify as his defense ends after 2 days

MINNEAPOLIS — He settled into a swiveling chair, sitting upright and a bit stiff, in a mostly empty courtroom.

Holding a microphone in front of his chest, Derek Chauvin removed a blue mask to reveal a clean-shaven face.

As his lawyer, Eric Nelson, asked a series of questions, Chauvin dipped his body toward the microphone and uttered the first words the public has heard from him in the more than 10 months since the death of George Floyd on May 25.

“Have you made a decision today whether you intend to testify or whether you intend to invoke your Fifth Amendment privilege?” Nelson asked.

“I will invoke my Fifth Amendment privilege today,” Chauvin said.

With that, the defense rested its case in the murder trial of Chauvin, a former police officer. After 13 days of testimony, the jury was offered no glimpse behind the impassive expression maintained by Chauvin, hands in his pockets and sunglasses on his head, as he knelt on the neck of Floyd on a South Minneapolis street for more than nine minutes. The jury is expected to hear closing arguments on Monday and could deliver a verdict next week. The city is bracing for reaction from residents, including the potential for widespread unrest in the event that Chauvin is acquitted. The court plans to begin evacuating government buildings before the verdict is read.

Convictions of police officers for on-duty killings are exceedingly rare. But Nelson faced a daunting task given the harrowing video that showed Floyd, who was Black, pleading for his life, then losing consciousness under the knee of Chauvin, a white officer, as bystanders shouted out that he was dying.

“Let’s put it this way, Eric Nelson had one hell of a case to defend,” said Joe Friedberg, a prominent Minneapolis criminal defense lawyer.

The defense had two main arguments: that the true cause of death was not Chauvin’s actions but Floyd’s underlying health conditions and his use of illicit drugs, and that Chauvin’s actions were reasonable in the face of Floyd’s resistance and what it framed as an angry, threatening crowd of onlookers.

It is common for the defense portion of a trial to be much shorter, because the burden of proof is on the prosecution, and that proved to be the case here. Nelson presented seven witnesses in two days, compared with 38 for the prosecution over 11 days.

Nelson was stymied in some of his attempts to introduce evidence about Floyd’s use of fentanyl and methamphetamine.

One potential witness, Morries Lester Hall, an associate of Floyd’s who was in the car with him on the day of his death and may have sold him drugs, declined to testify on the grounds that he did not want to incriminate himself. On Thursday, Nelson said without explanation that he would not call a toxicologist who had been expected to testify.

Evidence that Nelson had wanted to present about a 2019 arrest of Floyd was strictly limited by the judge, Peter Cahill.

The judge repeatedly said that neither Floyd’s past actions nor his state of mind were relevant to the case.

The defense’s main witnesses were a use-of-force expert, Barry Brodd, and a forensic pathologist, Dr. David Fowler.

Brodd, a former police officer, said that Chauvin’s actions were justified because Floyd was “actively resisting” while handcuffed and pinned facedown on the pavement. Brodd said a compliant person in that situation would have been “resting comfortably.”

He said a suspect under the influence of drugs does not feel pain, “may have an ability to go from compliant to extreme noncompliance in a heartbeat” and may exhibit “superhuman strength.” Brodd said he did not consider Chauvin’s keeping Floyd facedown to be a use of force.

But when he was cross-examined by Steve Schleicher, a prosecutor, Brodd acknowledged that the Minneapolis Police Department defines restraint as a use of force and that a reasonable officer follows department policy.

Fowler, the former chief medical examiner of Maryland, blamed Floyd’s heart disease, made worse by stress from the struggle with the officer, for causing a cardiac arrhythmia that led to his death, with other contributing factors including drug use and carbon monoxide exposure from the squad car’s tailpipe.

He said the weight of Chauvin’s knee was not enough to injure Floyd. There were so many factors, he said, that he would have classified the manner of death as “undetermined,” rather than homicide.

On cross-examination by Jerry Blackwell for the state, Fowler acknowledged that Floyd died “long, long before” he reached a hospital, that he could have been saved and that he should have been given immediate medical attention.

Throughout the trial, Nelson was the only lawyer to speak in court on behalf of Chauvin, compared with a parade of lawyers for the state. But behind the scenes there were several other lawyers working with him, including those representing three other officers charged in the killing of Floyd who are scheduled to go on trial in August.

Nelson dwelt on Floyd’s size and muscular build, telling the jury in his opening statement, “You will see that three Minneapolis police officers could not overcome the strength of Mr. Floyd.”

Nelson ensured that the jury repeatedly heard the words “superhuman strength,” though he presented no evidence that Floyd had displayed any.

A.L. Brown, a criminal defense lawyer in the Twin Cities, said the defense’s case tugged at many of the same racialized tropes in past cases where white police officers have been accused of killing Black men.

“The cartoonizing of Black American men as either super-sexy or super-dangerous needs to stop,” he said.

Kenney’s proposed $5.18 billion budget would raise spending 7.8%

Mayor Jim Kenney proposed a $5.18 billion budget with no property tax increases owing to anticipated revenue rebounds to near-coronavirus pandemic levels and the federal stimulus package.

Kenney’s sixth proposed budget would boost year-over-year spending by 7.8% ($375 million). Revenue is expected to jump by 13.4% compared with the current fiscal year, with the bulk coming from the American Rescue Plan ($575 million), which passed last month.

Before the passage of the federal stimulus package, Finance Director Robert Dubow said the city was facing an “ugly budget” with at least a $450 million spending gap that would have called for “major cuts to our departments” and “significant tax increases.” The federal funding won’t fully make up for revenue losses stemming from the pandemic but staves off cuts and layoffs.

“It would have been a devastating budget without the federal money,” Dubow said on Wednesday during a budget preview with news reporters.

During his budget address to legislators on Thursday, Kenney said his proposed plan for fiscal year 2022 would improve the lives of Black and brown residents.

“And across every investment in this plan,” Kenney said during his virtual address, “we will target our dollars and our policy change to reverse the impacts of structural racism, and to make concrete improvements in the lives of Black and brown Philadelphians — in their safety, their health, and their economic well-being.”

The proposed budget estimates that tax collections will reap $3.3 billion, buoyed by anticipated year-over-year increases from the city’s wage tax (7.1%), property tax (2.6%), realty transfer tax (1.4%) and sales tax (3.1%).

The pandemic’s effect on Philadelphia’s economy during the last year was significant. Business closures and stay-at-home orders led to massive revenue declines in several city revenue sources, including the wage, amusement and sales taxes.

Tax collections weren’t expected to reach pre-pandemic levels until at least fiscal year 2023, said Marisa Waxman, the city’s budget director. The city plugged a $750 million budget hole last year, resulting in cuts to services.

“It’s going to take some time to fill that in,” Waxman said.

The city will receive an estimated $1.4 billion through the federal stimulus package, which will be used through fiscal year 2025. The pandemic’s effect on the economy is expected to reduce city revenues by $1.5 billion over the next five years.

In the first spending plan since the citywide protests over police brutality and racism after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Kenney’s plan won’t reduce the police department’s budget. The mayor would keep police spending flat at $727 million at the current level — the highest budget of any city department.

The city’s new Citizen Police Oversight Commission, whose parameters and responsibilities have yet to be finalized, would get $1.9 million in the budget. The proposed budget for the commission would represent an increase of $950,000 over the current budget for the Police Advisory Commission, which the new commission will replace.

The increased revenue would allow for the resumption of several services that were cut in the last budget, and fund new programs.

The Free Library of Philadelphia would return to five-day-a-week service. Yet the library will not be able to move to six-day-a-week service, which was planned before the pandemic.

The proposed budget would restore the street sweeping program. While the Kenney administration did not have details about the extent of the programs or which neighborhoods would be covered, the mayor pledged during his budget address that the program will “focus on Black and brown communities that are often hit the hardest by illegal dumping.”

The Kenney administration also intends to spend more than $13 million to create a 911 triage unit, mobile crisis unit and co-responder program to better assist individuals experiencing behavioral and mental health crises.

The proposed plan also offers relief to residents, non-residents and business owners.

The spending plan calls for putting planned reductions in the city wage tax and the business income and receipt tax back on track with pre-pandemic timelines, which extend over the next four years. Planned cuts for those taxes were frozen last year due to the pandemic. The wage tax reductions amount to the largest single-year decrease since 2009.

The Kenney administration also will forgo new property assessments for a second year in a row for most properties. These reassessments can result in property tax increases for some.

The proposed budget includes dedicating $18.7 million in new funding toward anti-violence efforts, bringing the total investment to $35 million. The funding would help expand ongoing violence intervention programs, transitional jobs programs and more. Some of the funding increase makes up for cuts to anti-violence programs from last year.

The proposal makes investments in education for students in pre-kindergarten through college, which Kenney said was the key to lifting Philadelphians out of poverty and the city’s long-term growth.

The city’s subsidy to the Community College of Philadelphia is proposed to increase by more than $4 million over last year to reach $48 million, some of which will pay for tuition-free college for certain students. The city’s free pre-kindergarten program is expected to increase by 700 seats in the coming year.

Driving new costs for the city are boosts to mental health services and police reforms ($140.8 million); employee benefits ($132 million); pension costs ($109 million); and a $25 million labor reserve for upcoming contract negotiations for the city’s major unions, all of which have expiring contracts this year.

The proposed budget anticipates a $109 million fund balance, or surplus, by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2022. Amounting to 2% of the city’s overall budget, the fund balance is far below the 17% recommended by the Government Finance Officers Association.

The city won’t contribute anything to its rainy day fund, known as the Budget Stabilization Fund, because of its projected low fund balance. The Kenney administration exhausted its rainy day fund last year to help plug its budget hole.

Kenney’s proposed capital budget dedicates $132 million toward street paving, a year-over-year increase of $100 million. The funding is expected to pay for paving 115 miles of road.

Legislators react

Some legislators were unimpressed with Kenney’s budget plan.

“We need to have a bolder vision for our city,” at-large Councilman Derek Green said.

Green, chairman of the legislative finance committee, said the infusion of $1.4 trillion from the federal stimulus package is a “once in a lifetime investment.” Officials, he said, have an opportunity to do things differently in order to better fund community organizations and encourage the growth of minority-owned businesses.

Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, the chamber’s majority leader, warned Kenney that any proposed tax cuts must have a measurable boost for workers, especially low-wage workers. She also called for prioritizing the preservation of the city’s existing affordable housing stock and encouraging homeownership.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, chairman of the legislature’s special committee on gun violence prevention, pressed for the city leaders to be “bolder and more aggressive” in fighting rising gun violence, which will stymie Philadelphia’s recovery from the pandemic. He called for more investments in anti-violence efforts, including tapping into the federal stimulus funds.

“We must do for gun violence what we have done for COVID-19,” Johnson said, adding: “As long as gun violence remains out of control, our economic recovery will be weak and slow.”

At-large Councilman Allan Domb said the city’s reliance on wage and business taxes to primarily fund its budget was not working, noting the significant revenue shortfall Philadelphia had faced before the passage of the federal stimulus package.

“We need to dramatically change what we should be doing going forward,” Domb said.

Mumia Abu-Jamal to undergo heart surgery

Imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal has been hospitalized and is scheduled to undergo heart surgery within the next few days.

He was rushed to an area hospital after experiencing heart pain over the weekend. Abu-Jamal was recently diagnosed with congestive heart failure and COVID-19.

“One of the greatest harms to Mumia is state violence,” said his chosen doctor, Dr. Ricardo Alvarez. “We support Mumia from the only possible treatment, which is freedom.”

Supporters of Abu-Jamal held a virtual emergency news conference Thursday evening to highlight his condition and call for specific demands. According to his wife Wadiya Jamal, and MOVE member Pam Africa, who says she speaks with Abu-Jamal daily, they have not been able to reach him for four days.

Supporters’ demands included that before surgery Abu-Jamal be allowed to call his wife, Wadiya Jamal; his longtime supporter, Pam Africa; Alvarez; and his spiritual adviser, Mark Taylor.

His supporters also demanded that he not be shackled to his hospital bed, as is the rule in Pennsylvania and across the United States and that he be immediately released from prison.

“Some will say this is an unreasonable set of demands, but we say no, this is absolutely necessary,” said Marc Lamont Hill, an activist and friend of Abu-Jamal, who moderated the news conference.

Renowned scholar and political activist for incarcerated people Angela Davis was also on the conference. She has been a longtime supporter of Abu-Jamal.

“This first demand is a human right to be able to contact one’s loved ones. The second is a basic act of medical ethics. Shackling someone to the bed greatly increases their chances of not surviving — greatly increases their chances of having harm done to them medically.”

“The third one is the call that we’ve always made — to free Mumia. We say free Mumia because Mumia is both factually innocent and legally not guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted.”

Africa said Abu-Jamal was walking with another inmate when he started experiencing heart pain and he went to prison infirmary to be checked out. Abu-Jamal was subsequently rushed to the hospital where it was determined that the arteries that carry blood to his heart were clogged.

Bob Boyle, who is Abu-Jamal’s medical attorney, said that to date he has not received any confirmation about his medical condition.

“I have spoken to no medical provider. There has been no access,” he said.

“I’ve been asked what surgery is Mumia getting and I have to tell you, I can’t confirm it completely but what I suspect is that he will have an open heart surgery, which will be what is called a bypass graft. He will need multiple vessels to address the clogged arteries.”

“But what we’re observing is really a degradation of someone’s basic right to seek counsel regarding his/or her health care,” Boyle continued.

Abu-Jamal, formerly known as Wesley Cook, was convicted of fatally shooting Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner after Faulkner had reportedly pulled over Abu-Jamal’s brother during a late-night traffic stop in 1981. In prison since 1982, Abu-Jamal was on death row until 2011, when his death sentence was ruled unconstitutional. He is now serving a life sentence.

Abu-Jamal will turn 67 on April 24 and his supporters will be having events around his birthday, including a City Hall rally.