Since the night police burst into Breonna Taylor’s apartment, her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, has said he did not hear officers announce their presence. When he shot in their direction, he maintains, he thought it was intruders breaking in.
Police have stated otherwise, insisting they announced their presence and rightfully returned fire — sending over a dozen bullets flying toward the apartment — after Walker fired a single shot at them, striking one of the officers.
For now, the law appears to agree with the officers. On Wednesday, a Kentucky grand jury declined to indict any of the police officers involved with charges relating directly to Taylor’s death. Only one officer, former detective Brett Hankison, was charged with wanton endangerment for bullets that went into a neighboring apartment.
Detective Myles Cosgrove, who police believe is responsible for firing the shot that killed Taylor, was not charged in the March 13 shooting, nor was Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, whom police say Walker hit when he fired at the front door.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced that Cosgrove’s actions were considered justifiable by the grand jury.
Legal experts, however, say Walker would also be justified, under Kentucky’s “castle doctrine,” in firing at what he believed to be unknown intruders entering his home, highlighting a seeming paradox that has allowed for the justification of both Walker’s actions as well as the actions of police who killed Taylor, an unarmed bystander. Walker was initially arrested and charged with attempted murder and assault, but the charges were later dropped.
“[Daniel Cameron] applied a different standard to these officers than he would have,” Paul Butler, a Georgetown Law professor and criminal law expert, told Stephanie Ruhle on MSNBC Thursday.
“Imagine if three gang-bangers had burst into a house, someone had a legal gun, shot back in self-defense and these gang-bangers proceeded to shoot up the whole complex. Those gang-bangers would be charged and be placed under the jail. The only reason that’s not happening in this case is, number one, these were police officers, not quote-unquote gang-bangers, and number two, the prosecutor who made the decision is a conservative Republican.”
Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was shot and killed after police with a no-knock warrant used a battering ram to break down her door as part of a narcotics investigation. The target of the probe did not live at the location.
Walker fired a shot at the front door, striking Mattingly, according to police. Cameron said that Mattingly fired back, sending a total of six bullets flying into the apartment.
Cosgrove fired 16 times from the doorway and Hankison fired 10 from an outside patio.
Walker, who had a license to carry firearms, said he believed it was a home invasion and that he did not hear anyone say “police.”
The Louisville police department has said that officers announced themselves before entering the apartment, which Cameron said was corroborated by a civilian witness.
Unequal protections for police and civilians
Kentucky cases from the turn of the last century suggest that a person who fires a gun in necessary self-defense and unintentionally shoots someone other than the assailant is not guilty of a crime.
Samuel Marcosson, a law professor at the University of Louisville, further explained that the state’s castle doctrine allows a homeowner to use deadly force in self-defense when the intruder is a civilian. But law enforcement agents are given more leeway under the doctrine as long as they have legally entered the person’s home, Marcosson said in a phone interview Thursday.
“They have the legal authority, if they have a warrant, to go into your home. So even when somebody is lawfully using self-defense, which I think Kenneth Walker was, the police can still assert self-defense in response when they shoot back. You or I couldn’t do that,” he said.
“That gives the police, as long as they act reasonably, the ability to act in ways that you or I couldn’t.”
Brittany Packnett Cunningham, an activist and former member of President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force, said on MSNBC on Thursday that there appear to be disparities in whom self-defense laws are designed to protect.
“Kenneth Walker tried to employ the castle doctrine and stand his ground and protect his home,” Cunningham said. “[Second Amendment] enthusiasts and the NRA should be all over this in defense of Kenneth Walker because he maintains, alongside at least 10 of his neighbors, that police did not announce themselves, and he maintains that so much that he called 911. And if you think that the police are at the door you don’t call 911, because the police are 911.
“So here he is firing one shot, one single shot through the door to defend and protect his home and yet the very people who believe that this is the right of every American are not speaking up on Breonna Taylor’s behalf or Kenneth Walker’s behalf.”
In the 911 call, Walker is heard saying, “I don’t know what happened, somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.”
Walker filed a civil complaint against Louisville police and the city earlier this month. The complaint cites Kentucky’s “stand your ground” laws. “Kentuckians have no duty to retreat or submit to force,” the complaint states.
“I was raised by a good family. I am a legal gun owner,” Walker said in a press conference earlier this month. “I would never knowingly shoot a police officer. Breonna and I did not know who was banging on the door, but the police know what they did.”
Marcosson said Taylor’s case should hopefully show that there needs to be “stronger rules about when police execute warrants and how they do so.”
Changes in the city have already been made. In June, the Louisville Metro Council unanimously voted to pass “Breonna’s Law,” which would ban no-knock warrants. While police had obtained a no-knock warrant for the raid that killed Taylor, Kentucky Attorney General Cameron determined that the warrant was not served as such, as police and the civilian witness said officers knocked and announced themselves.
Colin Miller, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who helped lawyers for Taylor’s family research Kentucky laws, said other states across the country are also proposing bans on such warrants. “I think certainly this could be a touchstone for reforms,” he said in a phone interview prior to the grand jury announcement.
Calls to release evidence in the case
Marcosson said he was disappointed about the outcome of the case and believes Cameron should release the evidence he gathered.
“I think what the attorney general did here was thread a very, very fine needle and whether that is supported by the evidence is subject to real question. That’s why having more of an explanation, laying out more of the evidence I think would be helpful in allowing people to understand and perhaps accept the decisions that were made,” Marcosson said.
Gov. Andy Beshear had similar sentiments.
“Since the attorney general has determined not to pursue certain charges, it’s time to post all the information, all the facts, all the interviews, all the evidence, all the ballistics, to truly let people look at the information,” he said during an appearance Thursday on MSNBC.
A spokesperson for Cameron’s office responded to the governor, saying, “We appreciate Governor Beshear’s team providing assistance to our office and the Commonwealth over the last few days in preparation for today’s announcement. However, releasing that information now would compromise the federal investigation and violate a prosecutor’s ethical duties.”