Prosecutor in Daunte Wright's death says he'll not be swayed by critics

Damik Bryant touches the casket of his brother Daunte Wright as its wheeled out following funeral services at Shiloh Temple International Ministries in Minneapolis, Thursday, April 22, 2021. Wright, 20, was fatally shot by a Brooklyn Center, Minn., police
Damik Bryant touches the casket of his brother Daunte Wright as its wheeled out following funeral services at Shiloh Temple International Ministries in Minneapolis, Thursday, April 22, 2021. Wright, 20, was fatally shot by a Brooklyn Center, Minn., police

Activists demanding a murder charge instead of manslaughter.

Posted: Apr 30, 2021 3:06 PM

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The day Daunte Wright was laid to rest, a small group of demonstrators gathered outside prosecutor Pete Orput's suburban home and, with microphones and a loudspeaker, demanded he file murder charges against the police officer who killed the 20-year-old Black motorist.

Orput, wearing a hoodie and khakis, stepped outside and attempted to explain why he had filed a manslaughter charge instead. After some arguing, Orput — visibly frustrated — finally ended it.

“I choose not to," Orput said of filing a murder charge. He thanked the group for being peaceful but said: “I won't give in to this.”

Wright was fatally shot April 11 by Kim Potter, who is white, during a traffic stop in suburban Brooklyn Center. Potter's body camera recorded her shouting “Taser! Taser!” before she fired, and the city’s former police chief said he believed she meant to use her stun gun.

People who know Orput, a former Marine who served in Vietnam before becoming a lawyer, describe him as fearless and willing to stand up for what he thinks is right.

He's “the kind of guy you want in the foxhole with you,” said Fred Bruno, a Minneapolis defense attorney. Bruno also described Orput as “very sensitive” and someone who “listens to all sides.”

Orput is just the latest prosecutor to feel the heat from activists who argue that killings of Black people by police are not charged seriously enough.

When George Floyd died in Minneapolis after being pinned by police last year, protesters hammered Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman for taking four days to file charges and then charging only Derek Chauvin with third-degree murder and manslaughter. Attorney General Keith Ellison took over the case, adding a second-degree murder charge against Chauvin and charging the other three officers.

Orput took Potter’s case under a year-old agreement in which Minneapolis-area prosecutors handle each other’s police-involved deaths. Protesters want Ellison to take it over, but he's said he has confidence in Orput.

As he talked with the protesters outside his Stillwater home, Orput was grilled by Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and activist who told Orput he would have charged Potter with murder if Wright had been white. Orput seemed wounded, shaking his head: “I wish you knew me,” he said. “You wouldn't say that.”

Later, in an interview with The Associated Press, Orput said such insinuations are hurtful, but he's not angry about it because it's not true. He said he feels that being a prosecutor “is what God wanted me to do.”

"And I’ve taken full advantage of the opportunity, I hope,” he said. “I just love being a prosecutor. … Fairly holding people to account on behalf of victims is what I love about it.”

Many legal experts say the manslaughter charge fits what's known of Wright's death.

F. Clayton Tyler, a Minneapolis defense attorney, said he thought Orput did the right thing. Orput could have filed a third-degree murder charge, Tyler said, but proving it is “a whole different ballgame.”

Orput, 65, grew up in St. Paul and joined the Marines after high school. As a lawyer, he has worked many jobs, including as a prosecutor in Hennepin County, handling robberies, weapons and homicides. He also worked as general counsel for the state prison system and as a deputy attorney general.

Now in his third term as Washington County prosecutor, Orput has been working on a program that provides addicts with drug treatment, no questions asked. He was instrumental in setting up a special court for veterans in trouble with the law, and he has been working to keep the mentally ill out of jail and to get rid of the county's cash bail system. His office also made child sex trafficking and exploitation cases a priority.

If Potter's case goes to trial, Orput said he and Imran Ali, Washington County's assistant criminal division chief, will handle it.

Longtime friend Peter Ivy said Orput is quick-witted and good at trial.

“If you are not telling the truth on the stand, he will expose you," said Ivy, chief deputy county attorney in Carver County.

Perhaps Orput's biggest case in recent years was that of Byron Smith, who killed two teenage cousins who broke into his home in 2012. Smith was convicted of premeditated first-degree murder.

The trial featured chilling audio recordings in which Smith taunted the teens as they died and called them “vermin.” Orput told jurors that Smith laid in wait for the teens – setting up a perch that Orput described as a “deer stand.”

“He saw things in that case that a lot of people didn’t know about,” Bruno said. “When he found out this guy was hunting these kids like deer, that really did it for him.”

Orput also has gone after police officers. In 2002, he won arson convictions against a former police chief.

But his critics say he’s never charged an officer with murder. Murder charges against officers are rare nationwide, including in Minnesota, where only two have been convicted of murder, including Chauvin.

Critics say Orput could have brought murder charges in the 2015 death of Marcus Golden, who was fatally shot by two St. Paul officers after police said he drove a car at them. Orput said the incident was tragic but shouldn’t be confused with other high-profile shootings in which police were accused of using excessive force on minorities.

“This is not one of those cases,” Orput told Minnesota Public Radio News at the time. “I know folks want to pigeonhole it into that, but it’s not.”

Orput was diagnosed last year with Parkinson's disease and, after a doctor told him to simplify his life, stepped down from a commission examining state sentencing guidelines. He said the disease hasn't affected him much, although stress can trigger symptoms. “If I stay Zen, I'm usually OK,” he said.

Orput told the AP he could not talk about the Potter case — but that he would not cave to public pressure.

“That would be a complete sellout of my values and everything I’ve worked for.”

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 895229

Reported Deaths: 9462
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1749772017
Ramsey722701040
Dakota66032572
Anoka62513568
Washington39357355
Stearns32821275
St. Louis28761399
Wright25354211
Scott25329181
Olmsted21750127
Sherburne18478126
Carver1629166
Clay11923103
Blue Earth1126366
Rice11234138
Crow Wing11003122
Chisago974676
Kandiyohi9660106
Otter Tail9611126
Benton8815124
Beltrami801794
Goodhue786596
Douglas7689100
Itasca752796
Mower721349
Winona702756
McLeod694483
Isanti681383
Steele669431
Morrison663479
Becker620873
Polk591684
Freeborn550846
Carlton529474
Nobles521654
Lyon518761
Mille Lacs516573
Nicollet510960
Pine500641
Cass491252
Todd483642
Brown465057
Le Sueur445933
Meeker422357
Martin378143
Wabasha366010
Waseca365132
Dodge351511
Hubbard349848
Roseau307931
Fillmore299115
Wadena298239
Redwood277845
Houston266817
Renville264151
Faribault253032
Pennington247529
Sibley246917
Kanabec241536
Cottonwood225032
Chippewa216342
Aitkin215850
Pope203210
Watonwan194920
Yellow Medicine185423
Rock174728
Swift169322
Koochiching168123
Stevens164511
Jackson159216
Clearwater155720
Marshall151122
Murray150911
Pipestone148329
Lake129824
Lac qui Parle120025
Wilkin119416
Mahnomen104714
Norman10389
Grant9719
Big Stone9365
Lincoln8705
Kittson71523
Red Lake70710
Traverse5996
Unassigned572124
Lake of the Woods5235
Cook3020

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 520452

Reported Deaths: 7289
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk80319799
Linn32142424
Scott26637292
Black Hawk21974378
Woodbury20490258
Johnson19778105
Dubuque18515241
Pottawattamie15890213
Dallas15320113
Story1380258
Warren8450104
Cerro Gordo7964123
Clinton7725114
Webster7326122
Des Moines7098105
Marshall669093
Muscatine6645117
Wapello6441144
Jasper619591
Sioux610177
Lee5908105
Marion557897
Buena Vista502149
Plymouth488388
Henry418655
Benton404859
Jones404862
Unassigned40470
Bremer395372
Washington391463
Boone389739
Carroll367755
Mahaska365365
Crawford353747
Dickinson314655
Jackson307747
Buchanan305741
Clay295536
Delaware294654
Kossuth289077
Fayette286353
Hardin284353
Tama279777
Page272533
Wright266149
Cedar265527
Hamilton259857
Winneshiek258143
Floyd255449
Clayton244459
Poweshiek237243
Madison234525
Harrison234379
Cass233466
Butler232744
Iowa229634
Jefferson223043
Mills220930
Winnebago215938
Hancock214639
Cherokee211347
Lyon206142
Appanoose205357
Allamakee203955
Calhoun196919
Shelby196442
Union191141
Humboldt185130
Grundy183637
Franklin183029
Mitchell182043
Chickasaw178922
Emmet178246
Louisa176953
Sac171026
Guthrie168137
Montgomery161745
Clarke160829
Keokuk150839
Palo Alto150532
Howard146824
Monroe142739
Ida130141
Greene127517
Davis124625
Lucas124426
Monona122939
Worth12139
Pocahontas120724
Adair114337
Osceola104818
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Taylor98514
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