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Kentucky grand jury declines to file homicide charges in death of Breonna Taylor

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)

LOUISVILLE — A Kentucky grand jury determined Wednesday that two officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor were justified in firing their weapons into her apartment, while another was charged with recklessly firing rounds that endangered people in a neighboring unit, an outcome that has inflamed racial protests nationwide.

Hours after the announcement, Louisville police reported that two officers had been shot downtown around 8:30 p.m. as protests were underway. They were in stable condition with non-life-threatening injuries Wednesday night, interim police chief Robert Schroeder said during a news conference.

A suspect was in custody, Schroeder said.

After a four-month investigation into Taylor’s death on March 13, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) made the announcement at a news conference that he said marked the end of the state’s formal investigation into a death that has galvanized the nation’s Black Lives Matter movement.

Two police officers were shot on Sept. 23 while responding to shots fired in downtown Louisville, according to officials. (Video: AP)

Cameron said the two officers who shot Taylor while serving a warrant at her apartment after midnight were justified in firing at the 26-year-old emergency room technician because her boyfriend fired at them first after they used a battering ram to break into the unit.

Brett Hankison, who was fired from the force in June, was charged with three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment for allegedly firing multiple rounds that tore into a neighboring apartment. A judge set Hankison’s bail at $15,000.

Hankison was booked Wednesday and released from jail after posting bond, according to an official at the Shelby County Detention Center.

The grand jury decision prompted outrage and calls for people to take to the streets nationwide in Taylor’s name. Hundreds of protesters gathered in downtown Louisville, sparking some clashes with police as armored vehicles tried to clear the streets.

The announcement drew criticism from Taylor’s family, their attorney, and several celebrities and activists, who said that Cameron and the jury had disregarded the life of an innocent Black woman. They said the decision left them again questioning the fairness of the U.S. justice system.

Benjamin Crump, a family attorney, said the charges against Hankison included “NOTHING for the murder of Breonna Taylor.”

“This is outrageous and offensive!” Crump said in a statement shortly after Cameron announced the grand jury decision. “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!”

Under Kentucky law, wanton endangerment occurs when someone “wantonly engages in conduct which creates a substantial danger of death or serious physical injury to another person.” It is a felony punishable by fines and up to five years in prison per count.

In a news conference, Cameron said his office conducted an extensive investigation before he presented the case to the grand jury on Monday. He said none of the six homicide charges under Kentucky law applied to Taylor’s death because the officers had acted in self-defense.

A judge signed off on a “no-knock” search warrant for police to enter Taylor’s apartment, but police and one witness told authorities that officers announced themselves before entering, Cameron said Wednesday.

“This is a tragedy, and sometimes the criminal law is not adequate to respond to a tragedy, and I fully acknowledge that,” said Cameron, who was elected attorney general last year. “But the grand jury was given all of the evidence, and presented with all of the information, and ultimately made the determination that Detective Hankison was the one to be indicted.”

Cameron, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), urged the “celebrities, influencers and activists” who have taken up Taylor’s cause in recent months to avoid second-guessing the grand jury’s decision.

They “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,” Cameron said. “But they don’t.”

As she stood in a crowd of protesters in downtown Louisville, 62-year-old Chelise Stephenson said she was heartbroken by the decision but ultimately unsurprised.

“It’s what they do. Its been happening all my life,” Stephenson shouted. “Its bigger than Breonna. We want equal rights. That’s what we’re asking for.”

In response to the demonstrations, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (D) announced a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. through Friday and requested that Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) deploy the National Guard. Guard personnel in Humvees could be seen patrolling parts of the city Wednesday afternoon.

Fischer urged local businesses to close and allow employees to work remotely in the coming days.

Tuesday evening, protesters in Louisville had set a garbage can ablaze and shouted obscenities at police, but most were peaceful. Major demonstrations were scheduled for Brooklyn, downtown Los Angeles and outside of the Justice Department in Washington on Wednesday night.

In Minneapolis, which remains on edge from the civil unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd in May, activists announced plans to march on the state Capitol in neighboring St. Paul to highlight the “disgraceful handling of Breonna Taylor’s murder” and to stand in solidarity with protesters in Louisville.

Cameron’s announcement quickly became a part of the presidential campaign, with Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, telling reporters in Washington that there “is no question that Breonna Taylor and her family deserve justice yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

At the White House, President Trump praised Cameron’s handling of the case and backed the attorney general’s comments that “mob justice is not justice.” Trump said he planned to speak with Beshear on Wednesday to monitor security efforts.

Cameron said Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly was the only officer who entered Taylor’s residence the night she died. When he entered, Mattingly saw Taylor and her boyfriend, 27-year-old Kenneth Walker, standing at the end of the hallway. Using a weapon he legally possessed, Walker shot Mattingly in his thigh, Cameron said.

The three officers — including Hankison and Detective Myles Cosgrove — fired a combined 32 shots, and Taylor was struck six times. Only one of those shots was fatal, Cameron said. The FBI’s analysis concluded that Cosgrove fired that round.

Hankison, who was standing outside, fired 10 of those shots through a sliding-glass door and a window, Cameron said. Some of those bullets entered a neighboring unit that housed a man, a pregnant woman and a child — resulting in the three charges of first-degree wanton endangerment.

Cameron said there was no conclusive evidence that Hankison’s gunfire struck Taylor.

Carol Petitt, a lawyer for Hankison, declined to comment on the indictment.

Kent J. Wicker, a lawyer for Mattingly, issued a statement saying Cameron’s investigation showed that “the system worked” because Mattingly “did not break the law.”

Some legal observers and veteran civil rights leaders said the case exemplifies how the nation’s justice system remains heavily tilted toward law enforcement, even when it involves the death of an innocent woman with no criminal record.

Jeffrey Fagan, a professor at Columbia University Law School, said Cameron “appears to have conducted the grand jury based on an interpretation of every single fact in a light most favorable to police.” He wondered why investigators noted that one neighbor reported hearing the officers announce themselves at their door while others have told the news media they did not hear that.

“They could have pursued other courses of action that could have spared lives, and that is what they didn’t do,” Fagan said of the officers.

In a statement, the NAACP said that “the justice system failed Breonna Taylor and, as such, failed us.”

“From the officers’ ill-informed conduct to the city officials’ delayed response, their actions have discredited their pledge and responsibility to the greater community,” the civil rights group said. “It is unacceptable that, once again, culpability has eluded those guilty of state-sanctioned murder.”

Black athletes and actors also condemned the limited criminal charges.

“I don’t have many words right now . . . but all I can say is I’m praying for the city of Louisville right now!!!” NBA player Donovan Mitchell, of the Utah Jazz, wrote on Twitter.

In Louisville, hundreds of protesters set out to march through the city immediately after Cameron’s announcement. Some cried out in disbelief when they heard that bail was set at $15,000. Others shed tears.

“You failed her,” screamed one woman in a green Black Lives Matter T-shirt.

Soon after, the crowd started chanting, “No justice, no peace.”

Residents Sylvester Smith and his friend Andre Rox took a seat on a concrete ledge and hung their heads. They knew the announcement would be less than what they had hoped for, they said, adding that the city’s extensive security preparations gave it away.

“They started boarding stuff up, so we already knew what the verdict was going to be,” said Smith, 37. “They didn’t even hit them with manslaughter.”

Mark Berman and Hannah Knowles in Washington; Maria Sacchetti, Derek Hawkins and Robert Klemko in Louisville; Abigail Hauslohner in Portland, Ore.; and Holly Bailey in Minneapolis contributed to this report.