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Breonna Taylor case outcome suggests officers are above the law, says legal expert

The killing of Breonna Taylor at the hands of Louisville police galvanized a national protest movement. On Wednesday, one of the officers was indicted on criminal charges in the case -- but they weren’t for Taylor’s death. Many in Louisville and across the country are angry and frustrated with this outcome. Amna Nawaz reports and talks to author and professor Paul Butler of Georgetown Law School.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Criminal charges are filed in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, but not for the actual killing.

    The announcement has angered many in Louisville and elsewhere in a case that's become a new rallying cry for racial justice.

    Amna Nawaz picks it up from there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A moment more than six months in the making.

  • Daniel Cameron:

    I know many in Louisville and across commonwealth and country have been anxiously awaiting the completion of our investigation into the death of Breonna Taylor.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announcing that one of the three officers involved in the fatal shooting of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor would face criminal charges, not for her death, but for recklessly shooting into a neighboring apartment.

  • Daniel Cameron:

    After hearing the evidence from our team of prosecutors, the grand jury voted to return an indictment against Detective Hankison for three counts of wanton endangerment, for wantonly placing the three individuals in apartment three in danger of serious physical injury or death. If found guilty, the accused can serve up to five years.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hankison had already been fired from the force this summer. Officers Myles Cosgrove and Jonathan Mattingly were not charged.

  • Daniel Cameron:

    The decision before my office as the special prosecutor was not to decide if the loss of Ms. Taylor's life was a tragedy. The answer to that question is unequivocally yes.

    My job, as the special prosecutor in this case, was to put emotions aside and investigate the facts.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Those facts, according to Cameron, show that officers announced their presence when executing a search warrant overnight at Breonna Taylor's apartment on March 13. Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who said he never heard officers identify themselves, feared a break-in and fired his licensed weapon when officers broke down the door.

    One officer was shot in the leg.

    The investigation found Officer Hankison fired his gun 10 times, endangering Taylor's neighbors. Mattingly and Cosgrove fired 20 times between them, hitting Taylor six times. It remains unclear which officer fired the fatal shot.

  • Daniel Cameron:

    Mattingly and Cosgrove were justified in their use of force, after having been fired upon by Kenneth Walker.

  • Benjamin Crump:

    I mean, she's in her apartment. She's in the sanctity of her home.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Taylor family attorney Benjamin Crump spoke to reporters in Tempe, Arizona, today.

  • Benjamin Crump:

    We have been dealing with systematic racism and oppression that finds police killing us outside the courtroom, and the system killing us inside the courtroom.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    On Tuesday, Mayor Greg Fischer announced a state of emergency in Louisville, citing the potential for unrest. City police canceled any days off. Federal buildings were boarded up. Fischer addressed the public earlier today.

  • Greg Fischer:

    I urge everybody to choose peaceful and lawful protest. This is obviously a really important time for our city.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Earlier this month, the city announced a $12 million civil settlement with Tamika Palmer, Taylor's mother. That included a slate of police reforms.

    Speaking then, Palmer called for justice in her daughter's name.

  • Tamika Palmer:

    As significant as today is, it's only the beginning of getting full justice for Breonna. It's time to move forward with the criminal charges, because she deserves that and much more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This evening, protesters continued to march through downtown Louisville, where a curfew goes into effect tonight.

    Meanwhile, other cities are also preparing for marches in Breonna Taylor's name.

    Even as those protests continued in Louisville this evening, police warned they may use chemical agents if protesters don't disperse by the curfew.

    Breonna Taylor's sister, meanwhile, Ju'Niyah Palmer, posted a picture of herself on Instagram with Breonna saying: "Sister, I am so sorry."

    Let's get some reaction and perspective now from an author and law professor. That's Paul Butler of Georgetown Law School. He's the author of the book "Chokehold: Policing Black Men."

    Professor Butler, thanks for being with us, and welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    The fact that the only criminal charges to come out of the investigation and of the grand jury are not related to Breonna Taylor's death at all, what is your reaction to that?

  • Paul Butler:

    I think homicide charges against all three officers would have been appropriate.

    Imagine if three gang members had broken into a house in the middle of the night and were met with a gun used by the homeowner, a legal gun, in self-defense, and, in response, the gangbangers shot up the whole complex.

    I think that those gangbangers would be prosecuted for murder or manslaughter. I think, when police officers do the same thing, it's still a crime.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But let me ask you about those charges, though, because we heard the attorney general say that the shooting by officers Mattingly and Cosgrove was justified, because Kenneth Walker, Breonna Taylor's boyfriend, fired first, and they were responding and they were therefore justified.

    And he then said that barred him from pursuing charges. The grand juror said the evidence didn't support that.

    You say it does. So is that a difference in legal interpretation? Why the difference?

  • Paul Butler:

    I think that there's a credible self-defense claim, but it's one that the jury should have decided.

    And if the suspects had been anybody other than police officers, it's a case that would have been prosecuted for a jury to decide. The evidence suggests that the officers continued to fire after they were no longer in danger.

    Someone called 911 to report gunfire; 68 seconds into that call, you can still hear the gunfire. Also, the law in Kentucky is, you can't claim self-defense if your actions put innocent people in danger, which is exactly what the police did here.

    Breonna Taylor posed no threat to these officers. She was shot six times. The person who had the gun, who fired at the police, was not harmed at all.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, what do you think happened here today, Professor Butler? Do you think the grand jury could have seen evidence that you don't know about, or do you think that they considered the evidence differently because we're talking about police officers?

  • Paul Butler:

    The lore about grand juries is that they do whatever the prosecutor wants.

    As a former prosecutor, I think that there is some truth to that idea. In Kentucky, the prosecutor is the legal adviser. She's the only person who's in the room with the grand jury. And the grand jury does not know what wanton endangerment or reckless homicide means.

    The prosecutor explains that to the grand jury. This isn't a process that's very transparent. But what we do know is that the prosecutor seems to have credited all of the police officers' statements.

    For example, there's a dispute about whether the police knocked and announced, that is, told Breonna and her boyfriend that they were police officers. One witness said that they did announce. According to The New York Times, no other witness among the 12 that they interviewed heard that announcement.

    And that's important, because the officers were in plainclothes. And, as far as Breonna and her boyfriend knew, they were the subject of a home invasion.

    In fact, when her boyfriend calls the police after they leave the house, he dials 911, and he says, there's been a home invasion. He has no idea that the people who just killed Breonna Taylor were police officers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Professor Butler, the fact remains that a 26-year-old woman asleep in her own home was woken up and shot and killed by police, and there are no criminal charges as a result.

    And, as we're already hearing from protesters and others reacting, that, on the face of it, just seems unfathomable.

    So, at the end of the day, as Attorney General Cameron said, is this just a tragedy, and that's that?

  • Paul Butler:

    Well, we know that there are important reforms that have come from this case.

    So, among those reforms, a requirement of the settlement agreement, is that there has to be more supervision when police seek search warrants. There are incentives for police officers to live in the city. Most police officers in many big towns live in the suburbs. When the people you patrol are your neighbors, you tend to do a better job. And, importantly, officers in Lexington will be required to wear body cameras.

    I do think it's important that, when individual people cause harm, they be brought to justice, they be punished for the harm that they cause. That's what the criminal process is about.

    So, while important reforms will come from the civil legal system, I don't think it's adequate. And it certainly isn't adequate to Breonna's family.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Professor Butler, very briefly, in the few seconds we have left, what would you say to the many people out there who say this is another example of Black Americans who are disproportionately affected by violence from police officers not getting justice?

  • Paul Butler:

    I would say that they're exactly right.

    What the Kentucky prosecutor said today is that, when three police officers barge into your house in the middle of the night, and shoot you six times, that's not a crime.

    I think that that's a legal, prosecutorial way of saying that Black lives don't matter. Sometimes, the problem is systemic. This isn't a systemic issue. This is a problem about bad apple cops. You don't need reform. It's against the law to do what they did, in my opinion.

    And yet these officers are now above the law.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Professor Paul Butler of Georgetown University joining us tonight.

    Thank you very much for your time.

  • Paul Butler:

    Thank you for having me.

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