The Daily Kos and other sites are heralding the interview of Dr. Jason Johnson, MSNBC contributor and Morgan State journalism professor, who denounced the Kentucky Grand jury and prosecutors in the Brionna Taylor case as engaging in raw “state-sponsored white supremacy” in falling to indict the three police officers with murder. Others declared the result as the product of obvious racism in the justice system and many ridiculed Kentucky Attorney General Kenneth Cameron as a traitor to the black community or “the Bull Connor” of black lawyers. These attacks ignore the legal barriers to the murder charges demanded by many. While there are good faith reasons for many to criticize the charges or underlying decisions of the police, some of us warned that the case would present serious challenges given the shooting by Taylor’s boyfriend and the wounding of an officer.
Former officer Brett Hankison was charged with first-degree wanton endangerment due to his unloading of his service weapon. The charge is well founded since he fired wildly from outside the apartment with rounds entering another unit. In my view, unless there is additional evidence presented, there is a strong basis for conviction.
However, the other two officers (Cameron and Mattingly) were cleared in the shooting. The investigation found that they did knock and announce, though it is not clear if Taylor or her boyfriend heard the identification. The officers were not involved in the warrant but were ordered to enforce it. (There remain considerable questions about that warrant for Taylor former boyfriend that still must be addressed).
The boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, reportedly shot first and hit one of the officers who returned fire with his partner. It would be extremely difficult to prove murder in such a circumstances and, unless the Grand Jury was given false evidence, the shooting would meet the criteria on the use of lethal force set by the Supreme Court. It is extremely likely that a murder charge against those two officers would end up in a hung jury or acquittal.
As for Hankison, I have seen no explanation of how he would be chargeable for murder if, as found, his rounds did not hit Taylor. Indeed, they did not hit anyone. They were wild shots that missed the apartment entirely — hence the wanton endangerment charge.
Ben Crump, who represents the Taylor family, insisted that “If Hankison’s behavior constituted wanton endangerment of the people in the apartments next to hers, then it should also be considered wanton endangerment of Breonna.” That is a legitimate point. The difficulty is tied to the threshold legal question of whether the officers were justified in returning fire in the first place. The finding was that the officers were justified after being fired upon and one being wounded. If the shooting in the apartment was justified, it would be more difficult to distinguish the direct shoots of Cameron and Mattingly from indirect shoots of Hankison in terms of the two individuals in the apartment. Hankison was found to have fired after Walker fired on the officers. Yet, there is a basis for Crump’s point. The other two officers were firing in a dark narrow hallway. Mattingly was firing wildly outside.
Crump notably added “In fact, it should have been ruled wanton murder.” I do not know of such a charge but before you have anything labeled as “wanton murder” you need to prove “murder.” As noted above, I do not believe that these facts, if true, could result in a guilty verdict against Hankison for murder and indeed a court could well throw out the charges before trial.
“I’m so disgusted by this. I’m so disgusted by Daniel Cameron’s performance. I am so sick and tired of Black people going on the air and performing for violence and white supremacy and state-sponsored violence against Black people and claiming their mamas and claiming because they’re a Black man, they care about it — This woman got shot in her house! When she was asleep!”
“I’m sitting right here in my house right now. If cops busted into my house right now and shot me on the air, what Daniel Cameron basically told America is that that would be legal!. If they thought that there was something wrong, I could be shot in broad daylight, on national television, in my house, because the cops can break in and shoot whoever they want if they’re concerned! That is why people are upset.”
I understand why Johnson is upset with this result. Many of us are upset over this tragedy. There is no sense of justice when an innocent person’s life is needlessly taken. However, Cameron’s race has nothing to do with this. If officers broke into Johnson’s house and shot him on the air, it would be murder. The difference is that the officers in the Taylor case were fired upon and one wounded. That is a material difference even if you have legitimate objections over the need for the warrant or doubts over the knock-and-announce claim.
There are ample questions still remaining in this case but we are not going to address them if we ignore material facts or legal elements to these crimes.