What Is The Difference Between The Wright And Babbitt Shootings?

Photo: Brooklyn Center Police Department

Below is my column in USA Today on charging decisions in the Wright and Babbitt shootings. The sharp contrast in the two decisions raises serious questions over the legal and political issues that rage around such cases.

Here is the column:

Within an hour of each other, charging decisions in two lethal police shootings were announced with strikingly different conclusions. The decisions reached in the shootings of Daunte Wright in Minnesota and Ashli Babbitt in Washington highlight concerns over the political and legal elements that can influence such decisions. The timing of the two decisions that involved two chaotic situations raises questions why charges were filed in Minnesota, but not in Washington.

In the Minnesota shooting, police were attempting to arrest Wright who, after a traffic stop, was found to have an outstanding warrant for fleeing police with an unlicensed firearm. Wright broke free of officers while he was being handcuffed and jumped back into the car to drive away. Kim Potter decided to deploy her stun gun against Wright, which would likely be viewed as a reasonable level of force in that circumstance. However, in the struggle, Potter grabbed her service weapon rather than her Taser. In the video, the officer is heard yelling “taser, taser, taser” before she swears and says, “Holy S**t I just shot him.”

Weapon confusion cases

The case has tragically familiar elements as a “weapon confusion” case. There are so many such weapon-confusion cases that departments have tried a variety of solutions, from adding special training to new designs for stun guns. The problem is such training can be lost to the fog and frenzy of the violent scene.

The case is similar to what happened in 2009, when Bay Area Rapid Transit officers struggled with Oscar Grant to arrest him. With Grant on the ground, BART officer Johannes Mehserle warned he was about to use a Taser but then grabbed his service weapon and fired a fatal round into Grant’s back.

The videotape of the incident showed Mehserle moving his thumb over his weapon as you would to release a safety on the Taser. (His service weapon did not have that type of safety release). The jury rejected second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter charges but found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Unlike past cases, the prosecutors did not overcharge Potter. However, under the criminal provision, the prosecutors must show that the 26-year veteran “creat[ed] an unreasonable risk, and consciously [took] chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another.” The question is whether a possible split-second mistake legally constitutes a conscious choice of an officer.

The Babbitt shooting

In Washington, the Justice Department announced that it would not charge the officer who shot Ashli Babbitt during the Jan. 6 riot. The decision in Washington had a number of striking differences. Potter was charged within a few days. It has been months since Babbitt was shot in the Capitol. The identity of the responsible officer has not been made public. Babbitt was an unarmed Air Force veteran without a criminal record. While she was clearly trespassing and at the forefront of a riot, there is no claim that she was threatening any officer or possible person with serious bodily injury or death. Indeed, near her were other officers who could have been hit by the round. (Babbitt was trying to climb through a broken door in the Speaker’s Lobby as police fought back the mob).

If the officer intended to shoot Babbitt, it would not likely meet the standard for a justified shooting under governing cases like Tennessee v. Garner (1985). If the officer fired blindly or wildly, it would appear to have many of the same negligent elements as the Wright shooting.

In rejecting charges, the Justice Department statement notably does not say that the shooting was clearly justified. Instead, it noted that “prosecutors would have to prove not only that the officer used force that was constitutionally unreasonable, but that the officer did so ‘willfully.’”  It stressed that this element requires a showing of “a bad purpose to disregard the law” and that “evidence that an officer acted out of fear, mistake, panic, misperception, negligence, or even poor judgment cannot establish the high level of intent.”

Of course, “weapons confusion” cases are often caused by an officer’s acting out of “fear, mistake, panic, misperception, negligence, or poor judgment.” Yet, in one case an officer is charged and in the other the officer is cleared.

An uncertain line

For the public, the line of distinction can be hard to discern. For officers, that uncertain line can be the difference between discipline and incarceration. Officers have to be able to see that line clearly in carrying out duties with often in split second decisions in violent incidents.

Both of these deaths were tragic. There was a clearly different political contexts and timelines for the decisions. After Babbitt’s death, there was no outcry over her death because she was part of an infamous riot that stopped a constitutional process of certifying presidential electoral votes. Yet, the shooting does not appear any more justified than the Wright shooting, which was likely an accident. The Justice Department indicates an intentional shot was fired by an officer either at Babbitt or the mob generally. It does not explain which.

Violent riots are unfortunately common today in cities ranging from Minneapolis to Portland to Washington. The use of live rounds however have never been authorized absent a particularized showing of a significant threat to an officer or others. Nothing in the announcement in the Babbitt case answers how such a showing was made by the officer.

In the end, these cases capture the uncertain line in these cases of when mistakes or errors by police are criminal matters. There is a credible basis for the charge in the Wright shooting, but a jury will now have to decide if this was a conscious decision or tragic (but noncriminal) mistake. All such cases are highly fact specific. However, the Babbitt decision leaves more questions than answers for the public and police alike.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley

295 thoughts on “What Is The Difference Between The Wright And Babbitt Shootings?”

  1. Thank for hour analysis Mr. Turley, but in Babbitt’s case, I’m convinced it was a deliberate assassination.

    1. There were other officers, armed with long guns, outside the Capitol door, directly behind Babbitt who could have acted to impede or arrest the unarmed Babbitt; but did nothing (per documented stand-down order?).
    2. Clearly, the officer who murdered Babbitt had his weapon leveled at Babbitt for at least five to ten seconds, indicating pre-meditation. 
    3, When she was shot, Babbitt was clearly caught in the small, broken doorway window and was never a physical threat to anyone, certainly not to the officer who murdered her.
    4. The politics in these two incidents reeks to high heaven. While the investigation into the murder of Wright was pursued immediately, the identity of the officer who shot Wright known on the same day; the investigation into the murder of Babbitt was avoided until it was clear the DOJ could not avoid the public outcry over this heinous crime, and the fact that the identity of the shooter has never been identified. Both murders fit into the current Marxist narrative, aided by the Mockingbird MSM, identity politics (racism), as tools pursuing an agenda that includes de-funding the police, vilifying patriotism, Trump supporters, a BLM-Antifa ‘hands off’ policy, pursuing a course of branding any pro-Americans, no matter how innocent or disarmed, as a terrorist threat. https://www.bitchute.com/video/BWR14xY0pqxt/ 

    1. Yes. Ashli Babbitt was ASSASSINATED. Where is the name of the officer who killed her? Simply declaring “Case Closed” is NOT ACCEPTABLE under the Rule of Law.

  2. “What Is The Difference Between The Wright And Babbitt Shootings?”

    nothing

    theyre both deeply rooted in marxist revolutionary theory and tactics

    and the best and most horrifying evidence yet that a 50 state america as it is now is in total freefall

    and that 2020 was our last best chance to vote our way out of whats coming

  3. Does anyone have any info on the race of the officer who shot the unarmed woman, Ashli?

      1. Did you say, “A freakin’ American?”

        Isn’t that a contradiction in terms and, at the same time, and admission of the inherent and insurmountable, immutable infeasibility?

        You can’t mix oil and water, as the physical axiom states.

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