The stories that matter.
The humor you need.
Subscribe now and get a free tote. Cancel anytime.
The Empty Facts of the Breonna Taylor Decision
September 27, 2020
There’s a lot that is god-awful wrong with the grand-jury decision in the death of Breonna Taylor, not least what the state attorney general, Daniel Cameron, omitted.Photograph by Jon Cherry / Getty
hose seeking justice for Breonna Taylor’s death were denied it on Wednesday, when a Kentucky grand jury refused to charge any of the officers who shot at her with murder or manslaughter. Taylor, a twenty-six-year-old E.M.T., had finished back-to-back shifts and was dozing off with her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, when three Louisville Metro Police Department officers, who were dressed in plain clothes, knocked on her door and then broke it down with a battering ram. Her boyfriend shot in the direction of the threat—toward the door. The three policemen proceeded to empty more than thirty rounds into Taylor’s apartment, killing her. The only indictment was for Brett Hankison, who, in firing his weapon without a clear target and into the adjacent apartments, was alleged to have acted in a manner that rose to “wanton endangerment.” His actions were deemed to have fallen short of “wanton manslaughter,” as none of his bullets were, according to Kentucky’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, the fatal one that ended Taylor’s life.
There’s a lot that is just god-awful wrong here, but let’s talk about Cameron. During his press conference on Wednesday, he placed a great emphasis on “facts” as, of course, one would expect of an attorney general. But Cameron has his own interpretation of who can grasp the facts. After announcing the grand-jury decision, he stood at the podium and said, “There will be celebrities, influencers, and activists, who, having never lived in Kentucky, will try to tell us how to feel, suggesting they understand the facts of this case and that they know our community and the Commonwealth better than we do. But they don’t.”
I’m from Kentucky. I’m a Louisvillian. Yet my being from Louisville has no bearing whatsoever on whether I can “understand the facts of this case” any more than can Beyoncé, of Houston, Texas. Anyone who has read the history of the South—especially that of Reconstruction and Jim Crow—is familiar with this “us”-insiders-versus-“them”-outsiders language deployed by Cameron: it’s the language of white-supremacist segregationists who demonized “outside agitators” and condemned any federal oversight or laws telling them how to act or who to be. According to segregationist thinking, the racist customs of the South were her own to determine. Cameron continued, “Let’s not give into their attempts to influence our thinking or capture our emotions. At the end of the day, it is up to us. We live here together. We work here and raise our families here together.”
This sounds like the Alabama- and North Georgia-reared Mitch McConnell speaking. Which is not to say that Cameron could not have constructed a segregationist modus operandi to fit his own goals and machinations, but it does make us question whom he means by “our” and “us” and “families.” Does he think that Breonna Taylor’s family doesn’t live in Louisville? What about the activist Christopher 2X or the writer Hannah Drake? Or the president of the Louisville Urban League, Sadiqa Reynolds? Or the attorneys for the Breonna Taylor Family Estate, Lonita Baker and Sam Aguiar? Or the drafters of Breonna’s Law
, Keturah Herron and the Kentucky state representative Attica Scott? All of them are Louisvillians who work and raise their families in Kentucky. All of them already know what to think about Breonna Taylor, because they have pursued the facts of the case, the facts that Cameron has obscured with what the late historian Howard Zinn would call sins of omission.
Let’s look at a few of Cameron’s sins of omission. “We decided, while we would examine materials gathered by L.M.P.D’s Public Integrity Unit, we would need to conduct our own independent investigation and start from scratch in the interest of thoroughness, fairness, and finding the truth,” Cameron said, and then added, “There was no video or body-camera footage of the officers’ attempted execution of a search warrant at Ms. Taylor’s residence.” One can’t “find the truth” if one doesn’t have all the facts. One cannot properly know the actions of Hankison, Jonathan Mattingly, and Myles Cosgrove—the three policemen who fired weapons in Taylor’s apartment that night—if we don’t have full access to the evidence that would prove certain facts. And we don’t have all the facts because the body cameras that these officers were issued were either never worn, turned off, or buried. “Right now, the problem is, you’ve got different factions speculating on different things,” Aguiar, one of the attorneys for Taylor’s family, told me. “Whereas, if you could just watch it, you can draw your own conclusions.”
The lack of body-camera footage isn’t Cameron’s fault, of course, but he is at fault for fetishizing “facts” when the means of providing the most objective facts appear to be missing. Cameron went on to say, “Video footage begins at the point that area patrol officers arrive at the location.” This seems rather convenient for the officers. We can’t see or hear when Mattingly was shot, nor by whom he was shot. We can’t see whether the door was rammed first by the police or a shot came through the door before it was rammed. We can’t see where Walker was standing, where Taylor was situated, nor when Hankison left the breezeway to go around the side of the apartment and shoot blindly, emptying rounds into Taylor’s apartment from the patio. We can’t see if the police forgot the knock-and-announce part of their “knock and announce” warrant. We cannot see—nor do I ever want to see—the death of a woman who’d only hours earlier been at a romantic dinner with her beau, discussing plans for getting more serious with the man who stood his ground and defended her.
More omission, from Cameron, again: “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 Apartment Four.” As Rukmini Callimachi, of the Times, has reported, about twelve neighbors declared that they did not hear the police announce themselves. The single neighbor who claimed that he heard the police declare themselves did so only after being asked multiple times and replying in the negative. Finally, when questioned again, he answered yes. Cameron failed to explain that when the police are serving a warrant, the announcement is supposed to be so loud that everyone inside an apartment can hear. It is meant to be deafening.
Cameron said, “Kentucky law states that a person is guilty of wanton endangerment in the first degree when, under circumstances manifesting in 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.” Cameron, here, was referring to the behavior and actions of Hankison, and yet, let’s take “indifference to the value of human life” to its logical end with all the officers involved. Were they indifferent to the value of Breonna Taylor’s life? They arrived at her door after midnight, bearing weapons that they were prepared to use. Did they run through an internal checklist of what could possibly go wrong with those weapons in the dark at a woman’s house, a woman who might live with a lover, a sister, a child, a parent? If they had, they might think, that’s a dangerous idea. And, upon further reflection, that’s a dumb idea. And, upon yet further reflection for anyone with a soul, that’s an inhumane idea. Not once did they think about Taylor’s sister Juniyah, who was away in San Diego that night but otherwise could have been in the next room—because the L.M.P.D. did not know she had a sister. And, since they didn’t know she had a sister, they couldn’t have known that her sister lived with her. None of these facts—who lived with Taylor, whom she planned to one day marry and have kids with, that she was an essential worker—seemed to matter. The L.M.P.D. was indifferent to her as a person. They considered her home a “soft target.” What does that mean? The dictionary defines it as “a person or thing that is relatively unprotected or vulnerable, especially to military or terrorist attack.” Hard targets are fortified, secure, and prepared to encounter a threat.
Perhaps Cameron’s largest omission was his refusal to acknowledge the partiality of the judicial system in which he works.Photograph by Jon Cherry / Getty
If this were a white woman, who lived over in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Hurstborne, would the police have decided to take out a warrant on her? If this was a white woman whose ex-boyfriend had dealt cocaine, would the L.M.P.D. have endangered her life by seeking to obtain a no-knock arrest warrant? When the Louisville Metro government arrived at a settlement of twelve million dollars for Breonna Taylor’s family, it was not saying that this is the monetary value for Taylor’s priceless, priceless life—nor even for her wrongful death. It was saying that that is how much it is willing to pay for the same kind of violence not to be visited upon a white Louisvillian. Indifference to life seems to matter when using a weapon, but not so much when using the much vaster powers of the state as a weapon.
VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER
How Hard Is It to Find a Cheap Sofa in New York?
Our bad! It looks like we're experiencing playback issues.
Cameron again: “Our investigation showed—and the grand jury agreed—that Mattingly and Cosgrove were justified in the return of deadly fire after having been fired upon by Kenneth Walker. Let me state that again. According to Kentucky law, the use of force by Mattingly and Cosgrave was justified to protect themselves. This justification bars us from pursuing criminal charges in Ms. Breonna Taylor’s death.” Return of deadly fire? A few words on that: Breonna. Taylor. Did. Not. Shoot. Anyone.
When Cameron was asked a question about the percentage of people of color who were on the team of investigators who presented to the grand jury, he responded, “Well, I’m Black, and I speak for the entire department. And I hope that will satisfy that question.” No, it does not. Cameron hopes that the fact of his Blackness will serve as the final answer to whether this Black woman, Breonna Taylor, received justice. No, it won’t. As long as there are two separate justice systems in this country, there is no justice.
Cameron said, “The truth is now before us. The facts have been examined and a grand jury comprised of our peers and fellow-citizens has made a decision.” Yet, when he was asked, “Can you talk about the racial and gender makeup of the grand jury?,” Cameron punted and evaded, saying, “I won’t get into the specifics of the makeup of the grand jury.” Why not? In a case that is all about how a racist system arrives at the door of an innocent woman and dispenses with her like collateral damage, one would hope Cameron would be eager to get into the specifics about who decides what justice looks for Breonna Taylor.
Perhaps Cameron’s largest omission was his refusal to acknowledge the partiality of the judicial system in which he works. It’s a system that can construct a fiction with facts. It can ghost on some facts, treating them as though they never existed, cherry-pick some, curate others, and flatten yet others. It can also mash two facts together, so that they seem like their opposite. Take this report
from Kentucky WAVE 3 News, posted on March 13th: “Three LMPD officers were identified Friday, hours after being fired upon while trying to serve a search warrant. A man who was inside the home surrendered following the shootout with officers in the 300 block of Springfield Drive at about 12:30 a.m. Friday. When officers secured the home, they found a woman dead from the gunfire. She has not been identified.”
This makes it seem as though the man—Kenneth Walker—was the target of the search warrant. “Fired upon” makes it seem as though the police themselves were withstanding the hail of gunfire, not the death-dealers of it. “Surrendered” makes it seem as though Walker was guilty; that he was forced to surrender—not that the L.M.P.D. had no idea who he was, and took him into custody and then pinned false charges on him. “Shootout” implies an even exchange of gunfire, not that one person fired a shot, then got blasted with more than thirty rounds in return. The “officers secured the home” makes it seem like the officers actually knew what the hell they were doing and were in control of the situation. They “found a woman dead from gunfire,” as though they just waltzed from room to room, in their official capacity, and happened upon a dead woman—“a woman dead from gunfire.” Yes. Their gunfire.
Leave out that essential fact, and the unsuspecting reader is left believing that the woman’s death must be at the hands of the man who “surrendered.” And how is it that “she has not been identified”? Her name was on the warrant
. Of course, she had been identified. They said as much to Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, after
they sent her to the hospital for two hours, when the truth was her daughter was not at the hospital: Taylor lay in her home, bleeding to death, because the police neglected to seek out medical attention for the woman whom they shot. Why? Because they had messed up. Big time.
Yet had people not worked tirelessly to uncover the truth of what happened—the truth that had been buried underneath a morass of facts—Breonna Taylor might still be remembered as a suspect and some drug kingpin’s moll, not a tireless essential worker whose goal in life was to help people. Hankison would still be lauded as a hero, despite his multiple disciplinary infractions. Walker would likely still be in jail awaiting trial for attempted murder, because (fact) he was initially charged with murder of a police officer—a fact that is not only a lie about his actions but a complete impossibility, as no police had been killed.
Yet, in his role as prosecutor, Cameron can present the grand jury with the facts he wants to present—a blizzard of facts that can blind the truth, if he chooses to do so. The police said that they announced themselves. Though it’s true that they claim it, whether they actually did announce themselves is contested, given that most witnesses say that they did not. This is what the Louisville civil-rights attorney Larry Simon calls “a disputed fact.” The police were justified in returning fire. Kentucky State law says that both Walker and the police have justifiable self-defense claims: Walker’s is Kentucky’s Stand Your Ground law and “castle doctrine,” which submits that Kentuckians may seek to protect themselves or their loved ones in self-defense, and have no duty to retreat or submit to force. The police are justified in returning fire when an officer is threatened with bodily harm or injury. These are two competing claims of self-defense. Walker is justified in defending himself against an intruder, but an intruder is not justified in breaking into a home. The only class of people who may break into your home are the police, but even the police bear the burden of proving why they may break into your home. They must obtain a lawful search warrant: that is what brings them to the door under lawful pretenses; otherwise, they are intruders—like anyone else entering without your permission. And, according to Kentucky law, you have a right to protect and defend yourself against intruders. The determination of whether Walker’s claim would nudge out the L.M.P.D.’s would therefore depend upon the legality of the search warrant and the timing of when the police identified themselves. Yet how can we know what this particular instance looked like with no footage of what happened at the scene? Ask the cops? Use the officers’ testimony as determinative evidence? The same L.M.P.D. that kept up the pretense for weeks that it was Taylor who shot at them? The same L.M.P.D. that said officers “found a woman dead from gunfire”?
Prior to Taylor’s, the largest settlement that Louisville had paid out was 8.5 million dollars, in 2012, to Edwin Chandler, a man who had been wrongfully convicted of manslaughter. The L.M.P.D. ignored evidence that would have exonerated him. They suppressed witness testimony. Chandler spent nine years in prison and ten more years fighting to clear his name. Meanwhile, the officer who lied and planted evidence was promoted. Chandler might never have been exonerated based on “the facts” had one “good cop”—Denny Butler—not unearthed proof of Chandler’s innocence from under a mound of evidence used against him.
Larry Simon, one of Chandler’s attorneys, said that the largest omission of Cameron’s in the Taylor case was in what options—or lack of them—he gave the grand jury for charges. “Everybody with any legal, criminal-legal background knows, the grand jury is essentially controlled by the prosecutor’s office that presents the evidence,” Simon said. “The prosecutor’s office determines what evidence is presented. And then, more importantly, they determine what charges are going to be actually presented to the grand jury that they actually vote on. So the bottom line is, when the grand jury reports, it says, ‘Judge, we got a three-count indictment against Hankison.’ And the judge says, ‘O.K., anything else?’ ‘Nope, that’s it.’ When there’s nothing else, no document that says the grand jury considered and refused to indict the other two officers or Hankison on any degree of homicide involving Ms. Taylor, what that means to me is, they weren’t given that option.”
But this seems to be just what Cameron wants. No options. Cameron said, “Justice is not often easy, does not fit the mold of public opinion, and it does not conform to shifting standards. It only answers to the facts, and to the law.” But given that the police are already a protected class, and given that all Black people are essentially “soft targets” for police, it is the criminal-justice system that must shift, must change—not activism against it. If the very gears of the criminal-justice system turn and grind in indifference to who Breonna Taylor was while alive—and kept turning even after her death—then we must change those gears, fix that machinery. We must change how the law works—to serve us, not condemn us to death.
Cameron wants to repeat himself endlessly about facts, because facts have a way of coming off as unassailable and bloodless. Don’t get me wrong. I love facts. I’m a die-hard trivia buff. But facts are not truths. The truth is that Breonna Taylor got no notice whatsoever for doing no crime whatsoever. To be given notice, you’d have to be considered deserving of notice, important enough to be notified. She’d served her country, her state, her city, and her adopted home town of Louisville, Kentucky, as an E.M.T. She was a mentor to her friends, her sister—even her own mother, who wrote, after the verdict, “You didn’t just rob me and my family you robbed the world of a queen. A queen willing to do a job that most of us could never stomach; a queen willing to build up anyone around her. A queen who was starting to pave her path. I hope you never know the pain of knowing your child is in need of help and you’re not able to get to them. I hope you never know the sounds of hearing someone crying and begging to get your child help and those cries be ignored. I hope you never know the pain of your child being murdered 194 days in a row!”
Breonna Taylor. A queen willing to do a job that most of us could never stomach. But what if she hadn’t served as an essential worker, or been so wonderful? What if she hadn’t been as ebullient and bubbly and as amazing as everyone says? What if she hadn’t done a single thing but breathe in and out, long enough to stay alive and to live out the rest of her days?
Race, Policing, and Black Lives Matter Protests
The New Yorker Recommends
What our staff is reading, watching, and listening to each week.
An American Spring of Reckoning
In death, George Floyd’s name has become a metaphor for the stacked inequities of the society that produced them.
20 Under 40 Fiction
An Unseen Body of Work Shows a Different Side of Black Power
The work of James E. Hinton focuses on the community-oriented elements of the civil-rights and Black Power movements.
Subscribe for unlimited access, plus get a free tote.Subscribe Cancel anytime.
© 2021 Condé Nast. All rights reserved. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our User Agreement
and Your California Privacy Rights. The New Yorker
may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers. The material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Condé Nast. Ad Choices