The Legal Response to Breonna Taylor’s Death Shows How Drug Prohibition Transforms Murder Into Self-Defense
Three Louisville, Kentucky, police officers executed the fruitless drug raid that killed Breonna Taylor, an unarmed 26-year-old EMT, in the middle of the night on March 13. But just one faces criminal charges, and those charges have nothing to do with Taylor’s death.
State prosecutors concluded that the two other officers were justified in returning fire after Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, shot one of them in the leg. Yet local prosecutors decided not to pursue an attempted murder charge against Walker.
Those seemingly contradictory decisions reflect Kentucky’s standards for self-defense, which make it possible that Walker and the cops were both legally justified in using deadly force. But that puzzling situation also has to be understood in the context of the war on drugs, which frequently involves armed home invasions that invite potentially deadly confusion. That unjustified violence is the root of the problem highlighted by Taylor’s senseless death and the unsatisfying legal response to it.
Yesterday a grand jury charged Detective Brett Hankison with three counts of wanton endangerment in the first degree for blindly firing 10 rounds from outside Taylor’s apartment. At a post-indictment press conference yesterday, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron noted that Hankison fired through a sliding glass patio door and a bedroom window, both of which were covered by blinds or curtains. Some of those bullets entered the unit behind Taylor’s, which was occupied by a man, a pregnant woman, and a child. Hence the three counts of wanton endangerment.
When acting Police Chief Robert Schroeder fired Hankison in June, he said the detective “displayed an extreme indifference to the value of human life” by “wantonly and blindly fir[ing] 10 rounds” into Taylor’s apartment. Schroeder’s language tracks Kentucky’s definition of first-degree wanton endangerment, which happens when someone “wantonly engages in conduct which creates a substantial danger of death or serious physical injury to another person” in “circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.” That’s a Class D felony, punishable by up to five years in prison for each count.
Cameron said “there’s no conclusive evidence” that any of the rounds fired by Hankison struck Taylor, who was hit six times. According to “medical evidence,” the attorney general said, just one of those bullets was fatal, and it would have killed Taylor within two minutes. While a state ballistic analysis could not determine who fired the fatal shot, the FBI’s lab concluded that it came from Detective Myles Cosgrove’s gun. Cosgrove fired 16 rounds at Walker and Taylor, and Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, the officer who was hit in the leg, fired six. So in response to a single bullet fired by Walker, the three officers fired a total of 32 rounds
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