In the end, police never even searched the apartment.
The apartment of Breonna Taylor, so important to a supposed drug case that police applied for and received a no-knock warrant, so significant that seven officers went to her home shortly before 1 a.m. on March 13 to execute the warrant, so vital that police used a battering ram to “explode” her front door, was left unsearched and unexamined after all hell broke loose and Taylor lay dying on the floor.
The drugs or money the police were sure were inside never materialized.
For month after month this Summer, pro athletes, led by the WNBA, made sure that no one forgot Breonna Taylor. Her now so-familiar face was on T-shirts, artwork, and signs. Her name was on the lips of no-less than Lebron James, the entire WNBA, Regina Hill, and Jalen Rose. Even last night, on Monday Night Football, the Packers’ Za’Darius Smith revealed a “Rest in Heaven Breonna Taylor” message that had been hidden underneath his jersey after making a sack.
The “Justice for Breonna Taylor” movement was so ubiquitous, with such momentum, it seemed it couldn’t fail.
Then came September 23 and the announcement that no one would be charged with a crime related to Taylor’s murder.
So after all the activism and advocacy by some of the biggest names on the planet, how did the grand jury, who returned a single indictment unrelated to Taylor’s murder, get this case so wrong?
It’s looking increasingly like the grand jury’s decision to hand down a single indictment against one officer was a function of ignorance of the law.
Following the indictment against Officer Brett Hankison on a single count of wanton endangerment, unrelated to Taylor’s death, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a protégé of Senator Mitch McConnell, appeared on television to defend the grand jury’s findings. In that press conference, Cameron claimed that the grand jury agreed that no additional charges against Hankison, or his fellow officers present on the scene that night, were warranted.
Turns out, that may not be entirely true.
Last week, an anonymous member of the grand jury filed a motion against Cameron, seeking the release of the tapes of the grand jury proceedings. Tuesday, Cameron said in an interview with Lousiville television station WDRB that his office, charged with leading the investigation against the officers involved in Taylor’s death, did not recommend murder charges to the grand jury, saying they were “not appropriate,” nor did they recommend charges against the other two officers who fired their weapons at Taylor. Now, according to the Courier-Journal, a second grand juror is asking for permission to speak out about how the evidence was presented by the prosecution.
The old saying “you can indict a ham sandwich” exists for a reason. Grand juries aren’t like juries in actual criminal cases. They hear only from the prosecution, witnesses aren’t cross-examined by the defense (who normally don’t take part in the grand jury at all), and are able to consider evidence that’s not admissible at trial. A grand jury basically consists of a prosecutor laying all the evidence on the table and telling the grand jury what charge they should indict on. And while a grand jury can request whatever evidence it wants to examine, what evidence it’s told it should look at is largely controlled by the prosecution. This is a huge reason why it’s rare for a grand jury to refuse to return an indictment.
In most cases, the prosecution, at least ostensibly, is on the side of the victim, and advocates for the victim throughout the proceedings.
But what happens when the prosecutors aren’t on the side of the victim, but the side of the police, advocating for the officers involved, instead of the woman who bled out on the floor of her apartment at 1 a.m. in the morning? It’s a complete perversion of the justice system — the inverse of how things are supposed to work.
So imagine this: You’re an average American. You’ve been summoned to sit on a grand jury. You don’t know much about criminal law beyond what you see on Law & Order: SVU. Luckily for you, there’s a prosecutor there to guide you through the process and explain it all. At the end of the investigation, the prosecutor says something to the effect of “based on my law degree and my many years of experience working in criminal law, this is what I think the law allows you to do.” No one tells you that a grand jury is free to reject the prosecutor’s recommendation and indict the defendant on much more serious charges. No one tells you the grand jury can even indict people beyond who the prosecutor tells you to indict.Cameron himself told WDRB of the grand jury “They’re an independent body . . . If they wanted to make an assessment about different charges, they could’ve done that.”
There’s a reason lawyers bend over backwards to keep other lawyers off juries. Mostly, they don’t want attorneys in the deliberation room, educating the jury about the law in a way that’s different from what they’ve been told in court. In this case, the grand jury absolutely had the authority to ignore the prosecution’s recommendations and return indictments for murder against all three officers, if that’s what they saw fit to do. But did the grand jury in Breonna Taylor’s case know they had the power to do that? As the instructions to the grand jury weren’t included in the transcript that was released on Friday, we’ll have to wait for a grand juror to tell us. But I’m guessing they didn’t know.
In the days since the grand jury recordings were released, it’s become evident that the events on the night of Taylor’s death are not as clear cut as the public was led to believe by Cameron’s initial press conference.
The police having done everything by the book hinges on two important claims: First, that the police identified themselves and gave Taylor time to open the door, and second, that Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker III, fired the first shot. If that’s the situation, police can then claim to have been acting in self-defense. As such, the police’s story has been that Walker shot first, hitting Officer John Mattingly in the leg.
In his post-indictment press conference, Cameron said, “Evidence shows that officers both knocked and announced their presence at the apartment. The officers’ statements about their announcement are corroborated by an independent witness who was near in a proximity to [Taylor’s apartment].”
But Cameron failed to tell the public that nearly a dozen other neighbors told investigators and media they did not hear the officers who were pounding on Taylor’s door identify themselves as police. And the one witness who did say he heard the police say “This is the cops”? He insisted for two months that the police didn’t identify themselves before changing his story. Did the grand jury hear that? Or were they simply told by an investigator that a witness corroborated the police’s version of events?
A Kentucky State Police ballistics report contradicts Cameron’s statement during the presser, in which Cameron said friendly-fire from another officer’s gun had been “ruled out.” The KSP report, though, specifically says that the .9mm bullet that hit Mattingly could not be “identified or eliminated” as having come from Walker’s gun. And while the police claimed that their officers carried only .40 caliber handguns, and therefore could not have shot Mattingly, it turns out that Hankison, described by fellow Det. Myles Cosgrove as “a little bit worked up,” during the raid, had also been issued a .9mm weapon.
And that’s not the only thing the police got wrong. Mattingly insisted the officers had a “formal plan” to execute the no-knock warrant, telling investigators Taylor was considered a “soft target,” meaning not dangerous, and would be home alone. But investigator Herman Hall told the grand jury he never saw the official plan for the raid, and the only evidence that one existed was a list of addresses on a whiteboard. Taylor’s address wasn’t even listed correctly.
Further, while Mattingly was on the record as saying the police believed Taylor would be in her apartment alone, Detective Michael Nobles said he believed she would be there with a small child. The justification the police gave for obtaining the no-knock warrant was that a former boyfriend of Tayor’s, Jamarcus Glover, was receiving suspicious packages at her residence. But the U.S. Post Office had already investigated that claim and determined it wasn’t true. As for Glover, he was already in police custody at the time the raid was executed. Joshua Jaynes, the detective who wrote the affidavit to obtain the no-knock warrant, is now on administrative leave, pending further investigation. Accusations abound that the police’s dogged pursuit of Glover, described as a low-level drug dealer, had more to do with Glover impeding the impending gentrification of the Russell neighborhood where he lived, than with any illegal activity.
There are plenty more disturbing facts about the officers involved in Taylor’s death. Hankison, the lone defendant charged in the events adjacent to Taylor’s apartment, is currently under investigation for allegations of “sexual misconduct” by five different women. Hankison has also been accused in the past of planting drugs on a suspect and of intimidating two other suspects into sexual favors in exchange for not making arrests. Cosgrove, who told investigators he didn’t know how many rounds he’d fired into Taylor’s darkened apartment (he fired 16), is now raising money for his retirement on a Christian crowd-funding site, claiming “With regards to the media, nationally and locally, the Breonna Taylor case has been forged into a tool for an agenda that has no regard for the lives that are being destroyed.” Mattingly fired off an email to more than 1,000 fellow officers, saying the cops present at the Taylor apartment did the “legal, ethical, and moral thing,” and referring to Black Lives Matter protestors as “thugs.”
Did the grand jury know these things? And were they aware they could ask for them?
Other than the testimony of the other officers, there is little evidence to corroborate the police’s version of the events leading up to Tayor’s death. Given that those three officers were also possibly facing murder charges, the justice system turned on its head when the prosecution, responsible for bringing charges for the killing of Taylor, takes up the testimony of the potential defendants as the truth.
Here’s what we do know. On the evening of March 13, 2020, shortly before 1 a.m., the police banged on Breonna Taylor’s door. Her shouts of “who is it?” were either not heard by police, she didn’t hear their response, or they ignored her calls and kept banging. Within a short period of time the police used a battering ram to send her front door flying off the hinges. Walker, who had grabbed his legally registered gun when the pounding started, and had told investigators he believed someone was breaking in, fired off one shot that may have hit Mattingly. It also may not have. The officers, one of whom falsely claimed Walker was holding an AR-15 rifle, then returned 32 rounds of ammunition into Taylor’s apartment, hitting the 26-year-old ER technician at least five times. Hankison, fired into the apartment through a covered patio door, which obscured his sight into the apartment. Three of his shots went into the apartment next door to Taylors, which contained a small child.
At some point, Walker called 911 to report that someone had broken into Taylor’s apartment and shot her. During the call, it’s clear that Walker still isn’t aware the intruders are plainclothes police officers. He is distraught and crying, wailing “Help” over and over as the dispatcher tries to get information about Taylor’s condition. Police don’t seem to be in the residence. Walker claims later that one officer tells him “you’re going to jail for the rest of your life,” while another replies “that’s unfortunate,” when Walker tells him he wasn’t hit by any bullets. Later, while he sat in the back of a squad car, Walker says a higher-ranking officer in an unmarked, black SUV came to the window and told him there had been “a misunderstanding.”
Cities don’t spend $12 million to settle cases when their officers aren’t at fault, as Louisville did with Taylor’s family on September 15. The timing of the settlement announcement, just about a week before the grand jury announcement came down, feels calculated by the state, something to point to. See? None of the people who killed Breonna Taylor are going to jail, but look how much money we gave her family. And frankly, Cameron’s assertion that officers’ actions didn’t warrant any charges related to Taylor’s death, while the city pays out millions to settle a wrongful death claim, are at odds with each other.
Prosecutors often hand over high-profile cases to grand juries as a way of insulating themselves from criticism. An indictment comes down? Blame it on the grand jury. Indictment doesn’t come down? Blame it on the grand jury. It’s how the system works these days in the good ole U.S. of A. Sure, Cameron’s office could have charged the three officers involved themselves, using the grand jury the way it’s used in most Kentucky felony cases — as a check on the charges the prosecution has already filed. But Cameron instead decided to leave everything up to the grand jury, along with half the information and God-only-knows what kind of instructions, leaving Justice for Breonna Taylor in the hands of 12 Americans who likely aren’t familiar with the law — which crystalizes how much he cared about this case.
Daniel Cameron will be up for re-election in 2024.