Louisville, Kentucky – More than six months after Louisville Metro Police fatally shot Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman, in a case that became a centrepiece of the US racial justice protests, a grand jury has indicted one of the three officers who fired weapons.
Former officer Brett Hankison, 44, has been indicted on three counts of wanton endangerment in the first degree for shooting into neighbours’ apartments, the grand jury said on Wednesday in its report presented to Jefferson Circuit Judge Annie O’Connell.
Sergeant Jonathan Mattingly and Officer Myles Cosgrove, who also used their guns, will not face charges. Notably, no officers were charged for the actual death of Taylor – a decision that was met with immediate anger from protesters.
Two police officers were shot and wounded in rallies after the decision was announced. One suspect was arrested, according to the Louisville police chief.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said there was nothing he “could offer to take away the grief and heartache this family is experiencing”.
“What I can offer today are the facts,” he said, adding that it was his job to determine whether criminal actions led to Taylor’s death.
“Justice is not often easy and does not fit the mold of public opinion. And it does not conform to shifting standards,” Cameron said. “I know that not everyone will be satisfied with the charges we’ve reported today.”
Hankison was arrested on Wednesday afternoon, and released within an hour of being booked, the Courier Journal reported. A judge had set a $15,000 cash bond. He could face up to five years in prison for each count.
The highly anticipated decision, which had put Louisville’s downtown on virtual lockdown in preparation for protests, falls short of the murder and other charges that protesters and some public figures, including vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris demanded.
In anticipation of Wednesday’s announcement, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer issued a state of emergency and implemented a curfew from 9pm to 6:30am (01:00 GMT – 10:30 GMT) for the next three days. Police erected barricades and limited traffic to a large portion of the city centre. The state’s National Guard has been activated. Federal forces have also been summoned to the city to protect federal buildings. The demonstrations in Louisville have remained mostly peaceful since they began in late May.
At a downtown Louisville park that has been the centre of protests, some 200 demonstrators gathered to listen live to the public grand jury presentation amid streets largely emptied of cars and dotted with police barricades and boarded-up windows.
When the decision came, some stared into phones and shook their heads, others yelled “No! That’s nothing!” Many cried. Chants of “No Justice, No Peace!” broke out. A fire was lit in a rubbish can.
“This is not justice,” said Shameka Parrish-Wright in Jefferson Square Park.
“No one has been held to account,” she told Al Jazeera.
Earlier, speakers said they hoped the grand jury decision would spark a new round of national protests.
Tamika Mallory, a co-founder of Until Freedom, said just before the announcement that the case was a test to see if “America will give justice to a Black woman.” Afterwards, many said the system of justice had failed it.
Jefferson County Grand Jury indicts former ofc. Brett Hankison with 3 counts of Wanton Endangerment in 1st Degree for bullets that went into other apartments but NOTHING for the murder of Breonna Taylor. This is outrageous and offensive! pic.twitter.com/EarmBAhhuf
— Ben Crump (@AttorneyCrump) September 23, 2020
Benjamin Crump, the Taylor family lawyer, tweeted: “These 3 counts were for bullets that went into other apartments but NOTHING for what happened to Bre. This is outrageous and offensive!”
He added: “If Brett Hankison’s behavior was wanton endangerment to people in neighboring apartments, then it should have been wanton endangerment in Breonna Taylor’s apartment too. In fact, it should have been ruled wanton murder!”
Following the announcement, protesters gathered in different parts of the city, including in areas not affected by the road closures. Live video coverage showed police, dressed in riot gear, declaring an “unlawful assembly” and surrounding and detaining seval protesters on a prominent Louisville street.
Nearly 120 days of protests
Twenty-six-year-old Taylor was killed by police in the early hours of March 13 when plain-clothes officers conducting a narcotics investigation barged into her home while serving a “no-knock” search warrant. Cameron said evidence showed that despite the warrant, the officers knocked and announced their presence. Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, had previously said, however, that he did not hear the officers’ announcement before they burst into the apartment. Walker said he mistook police for intruders and fired one shot. Mattingly was injured in the leg.
Mattingly, Cosgrove and Hankison returned fire. Taylor was hit at least six times. She was left bleeding in her hallway where she died, according to the Courier Journal. No drugs were found.
Cameron said there was no “conclusive evidence” that bullets from Hankison’s weapon hit Taylor. He also said that while the FBI ballistics report concluded the fatal shot came from Cosgrove’s weapon, his office’s investigation found “a reasonable doubt in the evidence about who fired the fatal shot.”
Cameron added that Cosgrove’s and Mattingly’s actions were “justified”.
The case garnered little national and international attention at the time, but it became a focal point during daily Black Lives Matter protests in Louisville after the May police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Chanting “say her name,” protesters have taken to Louisville streets for nearly 120 consecutive days.
In June, Hankison was fired by interim Chief Robert Schroeder who accused him of “blindly” firing 10 rounds into Taylor’s apartment, creating a substantial danger of death and serious injury. He called Hankison’s conduct “a shock to the conscience” in his termination letter. The other men were re-assigned.
In the leadup to Wednesday’s announcement, legal experts said homicide charges were unlikely because the officers could invoke self-defence after Walker fired a shot.
Prior to the announcement, protesters feared the officers would not face murder charges.
“They’re getting us ready” for a decision that will not satisfy protesters, said Jasmine, a 27-year-old Louisville native, referring to the barricades and state of emergency.
“This is murder,” Jasmine, who wish to only go by her first name, told Al Jazeera. “Wrong is wrong.”
Rene Lovett said the officers “need to be locked up”.
“They took a whole innocent life,” Lovett, 20, told Al Jazeera. She added that she believed the police and city leaders “really don’t care”.
After their fears became reality, many vowed to stay in the streets despite the city’s curfew.
Last week, the city of Louisville announced it will pay Taylor’s family $12m and implement police reforms.
Taylor’s family welcomed the settlement but demanded criminal charges against the officers involved. A lawyer for Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, said she would not make a statement on Wednesday. Other activists have demanded that Mayor Fischer fire the other officers if they were not indicted. He has not pledged to do so.
Governor Andy Beshear and other city leaders demanded Cameron release more evidence from the case, including the ballistic reports.
“He talked about information, facts, evidence that neither I nor the general public have seen,” Beshear said in his daily news briefing.
“Those feeling frustration and feeling hurt deserve to know more,” he added.
US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, praised the decision, saying: “I thought it was really brilliant. Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron is doing a fantastic job, I think he’s a star.”
The FBI investigation into the case is ongoing.
“FBI Louisville continues its federal investigation into all aspects of the death of Breonna Taylor,” spokesman Tim Beam said in an emailed statement to the Courier Journal. “This work will continue beyond the state charges announced today.”