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What is ‘wanton endangerment,’ the charge in the Breonna Taylor case?

The Kentucky attorney general said the shooting was a "tragedy," but not a crime. He explained why only one officer was indicted in the Breonna Taylor case. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Leondro Lozada for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Activists and lawmakers have called Breonna Taylor’s death murder. A lawyer for Taylor’s family called for manslaughter charges “at a minimum.”

But the indictment announced Wednesday against a former police officer who fired into Taylor’s apartment during a raid in March was more obscure — and did not hinge on Taylor’s death. Former Louisville police officer Brett Hankison, accused of blindly firing rounds that entered a neighboring apartment, was charged with three counts of “wanton endangerment in the first degree.”

According to Kentucky law, that offense occurs “when, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, [a person] wantonly engages in conduct which creates a substantial danger of death or serious physical injury to another person.” It’s a felony punishable by fines and up to five years in prison per count.

Legal experts said Hankison will probably seek to demonstrate that he did not act recklessly — and may argue that, in fact, he was trying to save the lives of his colleagues. They acknowledged hurdles in bringing tougher charges, even as they said they understand why those calling for justice in Taylor’s death are distraught. Wednesday’s announcement sparked fresh outrage over a case that has become a central rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement and demands for police reform.

“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,” Ben Crump, the prominent civil rights lawyer representing Taylor’s family, tweeted Wednesday. “In fact, it should have been ruled wanton murder!”

The charging decision underscores the complexity of the tragedy that unfolded at Taylor’s apartment: Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) said at a news conference that there is no conclusive evidence that Hankison’s shots hit Taylor. Two other officers who shot into Taylor’s apartment, and who remain on the force, were not charged, even though authorities think one of them fired the bullet that killed the 26-year-old emergency room technician.

Cameron said the other two officers acted in self-defense after Taylor’s boyfriend — who said he feared an intruder — fired a shot.

Wanton behavior, according to Kentucky law, occurs when someone is “aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk” — a risk so serious that disregarding it “constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.”

To bring a second-degree manslaughter charge, the grand jury would need to find sufficient evidence to accuse Hankison of wantonly causing a person’s death. Cameron said the FBI’s analysis indicates that another officer, Detective Myles Cosgrove, fired the fatal shot at Taylor.

The charges against Hankison echo the Louisville police department’s findings, announced in June with Hankison’s firing, that the officer showed “extreme indifference to the value of human life” the night of Taylor’s killing. Wanton endangerment falls somewhere “in between” crimes of negligence and crimes of intent, such as murder, as one Kentucky-based defense lawyer’s website puts it.

Louisville police forced their way into Taylor’s apartment in the early hours of March 13 to execute a “no-knock” search warrant for a narcotics investigation targeting Taylor’s ex-boyfriend. Taylor was home with her current boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who said he fired once toward the officers in fear. Police fired back, hitting Taylor multiple times.

Some details of that night are in dispute. Police contend they identified themselves before entering with a battering ram; Walker says he never heard that. Authorities say Walker hit an officer in the leg, while a lawsuit from Walker says that was probably not his bullet.

Hankison fired 10 times, Cameron said, including from an outside sliding glass door and through a bedroom window, and bullets traveled into a neighboring apartment where three residents were home — a man, a pregnant woman and a child. Hankison was indicted over concerns that he placed those three people in “substantial danger,” Cameron said.

In Kentucky, a person can be charged with wanton endangerment in the first or second degree. The second-degree offense is less serious — only a misdemeanor — and involves behavior that “creates a substantial danger of physical injury to another person.”

Prison time is not mandatory for nonviolent, class D felonies in Kentucky, said Michael J. Thompson, an Oak Grove, Ky., criminal attorney — and as the attorney general stated Wednesday, Hankison’s charges do not stem from Taylor’s death.

After 30 days of serving a sentence, Hankison could be granted probation by a judge, Thompson said, or he would be eligible for parole after serving 20 percent of his sentence. He would also qualify for expungement of the conviction from his record.

Thompson said he has seen the wanton endangerment charge levied frequently in his and surrounding counties, given the varied circumstances the charge fits.

“I did have a guy who shot a firearm up into the air, and he was charged with wanton endangerment,” he said. “Of course, DUIs. If someone gets hurt or gets into a wreck, that could be wanton endangerment.”

To fight the charges, Hankison’s defense team would want to show that he was not reckless with other lives, Louisville-based criminal justice attorney Ron Aslam said.

“They would argue to a jury he was fired upon, he was firing back. Perhaps he was too aggressive, but he was in fear for his life,” Aslam said. “And his actions really weren’t circumstances ‘manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.’ In fact, he was trying to protect the human life of his partners. I believe a lawyer would make that argument.”

Aslam said an acquittal based on that would be disappointing to those who were already frustrated by the decision not to charge the officers with Taylor’s death.

Outrage over Wednesday’s charges will “only get worse should he be acquitted at trial on the charges related to the neighbors,” Aslam predicted.

“These are legal realities,” Kate Levine, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, said of the difficulties in proving a stiffer charge, such as murder‚ given officers’ claim of self-defense. “That said … I understand why people will be very upset about this.”

At first, Taylor’s case commanded little attention beyond local activists. In contrast to other high-profile police killings, no viral video captures Taylor’s final moments. Now her face adorns murals, magazines and billboards — an emblem for activists seeking greater recognition of and justice for Black women killed by law enforcement officers.

Louisville has since banned no-knock warrants with “Breonna’s Law,” and policymakers across the country are pushing for similar reforms at the local and national level.

The FBI is investigating possible civil rights violations related to Taylor’s killing.

Marisa Iati contributed to this report.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Chenjerai Kumanyika explain how American policing grew out of efforts to control the labor of poor and enslaved people. (Video: The Washington Post)