CNN published an explainer about the Breonna Taylor case today. The headline is a bit of a muddle but they story itself does eventually reach a sensible conclusion about the case. The piece opens by focusing on a question. If former detective Brett Hankison was charged for recklessly endangering people in nearby apartments with bullets, why wasn’t he charged for recklessly endangering Breonna Taylor?
None of the officers was charged with her March 13 killing. Ex-Detective Brett Hankison was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment because some of the shots he fired allegedly entered a neighboring apartment, where three people were present. He has pleaded not guilty.
Yet if Hankison’s bullets — which police say he “blindly” fired through a window and sliding glass door — threatened Taylor’s neighbors, how did they not also endanger the 26-year-old emergency room technician as they passed through her home? That question, among others surrounding state Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s indictment announcement, perplexes some Kentucky legal minds.
“I can’t explain his logic, unfortunately,” University of Kentucky law professor and former public defender Allison Connelly said.
There is an answer to this question, at least an implied one, but the piece detours through a lot of other questions about the case before getting to it.
- Was the no-knock warrant in the case legal? CNN: “the warrant appears legitimate, experts say.”
- Why wasn’t Kenneth Walker charged for shooting Officer Mattingly? CNN notes he was charged, then charges were dropped but he could be charged again.
- Can the police claim self-defense? CNN points out that the DA said the use of force by Mattingly and Cosgrove was “justified.” Mattingly wrote an email before the DA’s announcement saying in part, “Regardless of the outcome today or Wednesday, I know we did the legal, moral and ethical thing that night. It’s sad how the good guys are demonized, and criminals are canonized.”
- Is the Castle Doctrine part of this case? CNN again quoted University of Kentucky law professor Allison Connelly who said, “The castle doctrine may protect [Walker] if he felt he was in danger or he felt Breonna was in danger.” That is exactly what Walker has claimed in this case, i.e. he fired because he didn’t know who was breaking down the door.
- Could there be more charges for the officers involved? CNN suggests it’s possible if Kenneth Walker’s lawsuit turns up some new evidence but as things stand now, probably not.
And finally, at the end of this we get to the conclusion. Maybe in this unusual case the actions of both parties were justified:
There is a distinct chance that Kentucky law protects both police and Walker, as unsatisfying an outcome as that might be for observers on both sides.
“What separated these two parties was a door,” Wine said in May, “and it’s very possible that there was no criminal activity on either side of that door because people couldn’t hear what the other party was saying.”
Castle doctrine could protect Walker, Johnson said, while at the same time the law surrounding no-knock warrants — which he says is “nebulous” — could protect the officers if investigations ultimately find they were allowed to enter Taylor’s home.
It’s unfortunate that this is buried at the bottom of the story because I think there are a lot of people in Louisville and elsewhere who still need to hear it. It’s possible neither party broke the law and neither party should be charged. You have a no-knock warrant signed by a judge and you have the castle doctrine and a legal gun owner. In this case, because the police chose to knock even though they didn’t have to, and because Walker and Taylor allegedly didn’t hear the police identify themselves, you have these two things colliding at a tense moment in time. Walker fired not knowing who was coming through the door. Police returned fire not knowing exactly who had shot and hit one of them.
All of this brings us back to the opening question about former officer Hankison and the headline: “An officer was indicted for endangering neighbors, but not Breonna Taylor, with his bullets. This may be why.” Why was Hankison charged with endangering others but not with endangering Breonna Taylor? I think the answer is that once Kenneth Walker shot a police officer (even without meaning to) police were justified in shooting back. Two officers did return fire and, unfortunately, hit and killed Breonna Taylor. The other officer, Hankison, allegedly fired his gun recklessly such that the bullets endangered other people nearby rather than engaging the perceived threat inside Taylor’s apartment. It was the recklessness of his firing that was the problem even though in that moment the decision to fire may have been justified.