After a grand jury’s decision to not indict a single officer in Breonna Taylor’s killing, the rallying cry has turned from “arrest the cops” to “release the attorney general’s report.”
At a Friday morning Louisville press conference, Taylor’s family and attorneys gathered to express their dissatisfaction with the decision and the criminal justice system. “I was reassured Wednesday of why I have no faith in the legal system and the police and the law that are not made to protect those black and brown people,” Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, wrote in a letter that was read aloud by her sister Bianca Austin.
Taylor’s family and their attorneys are calling for Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron to release his report of the proceedings, questioning what Cameron presented to the grand jury. “Did he present any evidence on Breonna Taylor’s behalf? Or did he make a unilateral decision to put his thumb on the scales of justice?” attorney Benjamin Crump asked.
The press conference came after a second night of protesters across the country gathered in the streets to demonstrate their frustration over the grand jury decision. Palmer had also made an appearance at the site of a memorial for her daughter at Jefferson Square Park on Thursday evening, sporting a T-shirt with Cameron’s face and the words “Mitch Bitch” — a reference to Cameron’s close ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Palmer told reporters she was “mad, pissed, upset, hurt,” and had “a lot of emotions.” “I wasn’t surprised, though. I didn’t have faith in them to begin with. I was holding out hope.”
On Wednesday, the country learned that no one was directly charged in Taylor’s death. Former Louisville Metro police officer Brett Hankison was indicted on three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment for threatening the lives of Taylor’s neighbors when he fired bullets that went through Taylor’s apartment into theirs. The two other officers who fired shots into the apartment that night — Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly and detective Myles Cosgrove — were not indicted.
“The decision before my office as the special prosecutor in this case was not to decide if the loss of Ms. Taylor’s life was a tragedy. The answer to that question is, unequivocally, yes,” Cameron said at a press conference after the announcement in Louisville.
“My job as a special prosecutor in this case was to put emotions aside and investigate the facts to determine if criminal violations of state law resulted in the loss of Ms. Taylor’s life,” Cameron said.
The nation had been awaiting the decision in the criminal investigation all summer. Cameron said he presented his findings to the grand jury beginning on Monday, and the jury made its decision by noon on Wednesday. The announcement came nearly 200 days after Taylor was shot dead by police while she was asleep in her apartment on March 13. As news of the incident drew attention in early May and picked up steam after the police killing of George Floyd later that month, protests broke out across the country.
Over time, the phrase “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” became a rallying cry for activists — as well as the focal point of countless memes. The phrase was plastered on T-shirts worn by athletes at sporting events and big-name actors at the Emmys. Many pointed out that Black women killed by police don’t often receive as much attention, or justice, in matters of police violence, and now was the time to correct that.
“When I speak on it, I’m considered an angry Black woman,” Palmer said in her statement read at Friday’s press conference. “But know this: I am an angry Black woman. I am not angry for the reasons that you would like me to be — but angry because our Black women keep dying at the hands of police officers. And Black men.”
What is wanton endangerment?
The grand jury decision caused outcry across the nation over what many see as a weak indictment charge. Hankinson wasn’t charged with killing Taylor, but with endangering her neighbors.
Wanton endangerment in the first degree is a class-D felony in the state of Kentucky. If convicted, Hankison could face up to five years in prison for each count. He could, conversely, be required to pay fines and complete probation and community service.
Kentucky law defines wanton endangerment in the first degree as:
A person is guilty of wanton endangerment in the first degree when, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, he wantonly engages in conduct which creates a substantial danger of death or serious physical injury to another person.
While there are six charges of homicide under Kentucky law, Cameron said his office did not pursue them because officers Cosgrove and Mattingly were justified in firing their weapons since Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, shot at them that night. “Use of force by Mattingly and Cosgrove was justified to protect themselves. This justification bars us from pursuing criminal charges,” Cameron said.
Hankison, meanwhile, was only charged in connection to the fact that he fired his weapon and his bullets traveled through Taylor’s apartment to a neighboring residence where three civilians were at the time, according to the special investigation.
During the course of the investigation, the Louisville Metro Police Department terminated Hankison because it found he “displayed an extreme indifference to the value of human life” when he “wantonly and blindly” fired 10 rounds into Taylor’s apartment, according to his termination letter. The reason for Hankison’s termination essentially mirrors the decision of the grand jury. Mattingly and Cosgrove were placed on administrative reassignment in May.
The grand jury announcement revealed a new version of what happened during the early hours of March 13
Cameron’s version of events of the raid on March 13 both differs from and fills in the gaps of the story that has been pieced together in news reports over months.
On the night Taylor was killed, police relied on a no-knock warrant to enter her apartment in search of two people suspected of selling drugs, neither of whom was Taylor. While police say they announced themselves, Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend who was inside the apartment at the time, disputes that claim.
On Wednesday, Cameron announced developments on this particular detail. According to the attorney general, there was an independent witness (a civilian) near Taylor’s apartment who said that officers knocked and announced themselves. “The warrant was not served as a no-knock warrant,” Cameron said.
When no one answered the door, officers breached it. The first officer to enter was Mattingly, who, in a statement, said he identified two individuals standing beside one another — Walker and Taylor — with the man holding a gun with his arms extended in a shooting stance. “Sergeant Mattingly saw the man’s gun fire, heard a boom, and immediately knew he was shot as a result of feeling heat in his upper thigh,” Cameron said.
According to the ballistics report, Mattingly was shot once by a 9 mm handgun, the gun that belonged to Walker. Mattingly fired six shots back down the hallway. Meanwhile, Detective Cosgrove shot 16 times, all in a matter of seconds.
In total, six bullets hit Taylor, Cameron revealed (her death certificate had noted she was shot five times and Taylor’s lawyer had previously said she was struck a total of eight times), with a ballistics report from the FBI concluding that Cosgrove fired the fatal shot. Determining who fired the fatal shot was integral to the investigation and extended the length of it, Cameron said. But since Cosgrove was justified in his use of force since they were fired upon by Walker, Cameron said, he would not be charged.
Hankison, meanwhile, fired 10 shots from outside the apartment, with some bullets going through the bedroom window, through Taylor’s apartment and into the neighboring one. At the time, three residents of that apartment were at home, including a man, a pregnant woman, and a child. “There is no conclusive evidence that any bullets fired from Detective Hankison’s weapons struck Ms. Taylor,” Cameron said.
Cameron said his team of investigators reconstructed the events that took place that night by reviewing ballistics evidence, 911 calls, police radio traffic, and interviews. Video footage — Cameron did not say from where — began at the point when area patrol officers arrived at the location. They also used information from the Kentucky State Police local medical examiner’s lab and the FBI crime lab in Quantico.
At the Friday morning press conference, attorney Crump cast doubt on Cameron’s investigation and demanded that the attorney general release the transcripts of the case he presented before the grand jury.
According to Crump, the public needs answers about what evidence Cameron presented to the grand jury. Crump also alleged that Cameron may have left out key details and witnesses in his presentation.
“Did he tell them about the 12 neighbors ... that live in close proximity of Breonna’s apartment that all said they did not hear the police knock and announce their presence — did he let him testify before the grand jury,” Crump said. “Did he let the cops who shot over 30 rounds of bullets in Breonna’s apartment ... testify before the grand jury? Did he allow Breonna’s boyfriend, Kenny Walker, to testify before the grand jury?”
He also raised concerns about policy lapses around the “no-knock” warrant, saying, “If he didn’t present these things to the grand jury, what kind of sham grand jury proceeding was this?”
Crump explained that the lack of transparency follows a pattern of “blatant disrespect and marginalization of Black people,” but especially Black women who have been killed by the police in America.
As Anna North reports, many others wonder if the attorney general, a protégé of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who spoke glowingly of President Trump at the Republican National Convention, truly did his best as a prosecutor to secure indictments in the Taylor case. (Cameron’s office has not responded to Vox’s request for comment.)
“There are questions as to whether he really did the job he could’ve done,” Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, told North.
Amy McGrath, who is running for McConnell’s Senate seat, has also called on Cameron to be more transparent. “AG Cameron needs to release the grand jury report now, including what evidence and recommendations he chose to present,” McGrath tweeted on Thursday. “We shouldn’t have to take his word for it.”
What happens next in the fight for justice in Louisville
In the wake of the grand jury announcement, protests erupted in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, Seattle, Washington, DC, and Portland on Wednesday. In Louisville, where the decision was delivered, protesters didn’t let barricades, a curfew, the presence of LMPD officers in riot gear, or the presence of the National Guard deter them from pouring out into the streets to say Breonna Taylor’s name. People marched around downtown declaring that the city and law enforcement officials had failed them.
By early Thursday morning, police had arrested 127 people in Louisville, according to the Courier-Journal, and one suspect was taken into custody in connection to the shooting of two LMPD officers who sustained non-life-threatening injuries, according to interim LMPD chief Robert Schroeder.
On Thursday, protests continued. In Louisville, at least two dozen more were arrested, according to the Courier-Journal. Among those arrested were Kentucky state Rep. Attica Scott, who led the local effort to ban no-knock warrants, and activist Shameka Parrish-Wright of Louisville’s Bail Project. At First Unitarian Church, hundreds of protesters sought sanctuary to avoid being arrested for violating the city’s 9 pm curfew.
In Los Angeles on Thursday, protesters took to the streets and police detained a man for reportedly driving his vehicle through a crowd of protesters. In Portland, after police declared the local Breonna Taylor protest a riot and used OC gas (similar to pepper spray) to disperse crowds on Wednesday night, protesters returned. The same happened in Seattle, where an officer was captured on video rolling a bike over a protester’s head the night prior (the officer has since been placed on administrative leave). Protests also continued in Rochester, Baltimore, Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia.
Friday marked a third night of protests around the country, with Louisville protesters continuing to clash with police. In New York, protesters held a sit-in on the Brooklyn Bridge for over an hour before heading back over to Brooklyn. Meanwhile in Boston, thousands marched from police headquarters to a park carrying Black Lives Matter signs. In smaller cities like Kansas City and Providence protests also continued and are expected to through the weekend.
A week ago, the city of Louisville announced that it had reached a $12 million settlement with Taylor’s family and attorneys — the largest sum the city has ever paid out for a police misconduct suit. The settlement was in response to a lawsuit that Taylor’s family filed in April, alleging excessive force and gross negligence on the part of the officers. A court filing submitted by the family in July alleged that Taylor did not receive emergency medical aid after she was shot and that the drug raid on her apartment was part of a government-backed development scheme to clear out a block in Taylor’s neighborhood.
While the settlement included a list of police reforms, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said it was not an acknowledgment of wrongdoing on the city’s part.
On Tuesday, Cameron announced that he would create a task force of citizens, law enforcement officials, and elected officials to review the state’s process for securing, reviewing, and executing search warrants. He also acknowledged that many would not be satisfied with the grand jury’s decision but fervently urged the country to accept “the truth” and for elected officials to do whatever it takes to “maintain law and order.” “Mob justice is not justice,” he said. “Justice sought by violence is not justice. It just becomes revenge.”
Cameron was assigned the case as special prosecutor in May and in the past five months revealed few details about the independent investigation. Meanwhile, activists have pressed lawmakers to defund the local police department. While Louisville’s Metro Council did vote unanimously in June to ban no-knock warrants, it also approved a budget that wouldn’t even begin to defund LMPD. The new spending plan will merely “require police to put the money toward recruiting a more diverse force, additional training and exploring co-responder models that could send behavioral health professionals on calls with officers,” according to the Courier-Journal.
The FBI is still investigating Taylor’s killing for possible civil rights violations.
Help keep Vox free for all
Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.