Justice Denied: An Overview of the Grand Jury Proceedings in the Breonna Taylor Case
A report by the Justice in Public Safety Project of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund

In March 2020, Louisville Metro Police Department (“LMPD”) officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman, daughter, and Emergency Room Technician, in her home while executing a search warrant. The deaths of Ms. Taylor and other Black persons, including George Floyd, at the hands of law enforcement officers have sparked protests and conversations nationwide about systemic racism and extra-judicial police violence perpetrated against people of color in America. 

These protests and conversations were further ignited after Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron (“AG Cameron”) announced on September 23, 2020, that the police officers who shot Ms. Taylor would not be indicted on any charges related to her death. Instead, one officer was charged with wanton endangerment for shooting into a neighboring apartment.

Following this announcement, a member of the grand jury filed a motion seeking, among other things, the release of the transcripts from the proceedings. Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Ann Bailey Smith granted the motion and released the audio recordings of the proceedings. This prompted LDF to assemble a team of attorneys to analyze the audio recordings in order to provide insight into any deficiencies in the grand jury process.

Our review reveals that the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office presented a biased view of the case that favored law enforcement. Contrary to AG Cameron’s statements during the September 23, 2020, press conference, he did not present charges of homicide or explain the justification of self-defense. Instead of providing the grand jury with all relevant evidence, the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office made its own determination as to how the case should be resolved and tailored its presentation to guarantee that outcome. 

This is a grave injustice.

We, therefore, call on the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office to appoint a special prosecutor to resubmit the case to a new grand jury, present additional evidence and applicable charges, and fully explain the application of principles of self-defense.

Read our full analysis of the grand jury proceedings. 

The Incident

Shortly after midnight on March 13, 2020, plainclothes officers from the LMPD forced entry into Ms. Taylor’s apartment while executing what was initially authorized as a no-knock warrant. The officers intended to search her apartment on suspicion that she received packages related to alleged activity by her ex-boyfriend involving regulated substances. When the officers breached the door, Kenneth Walker (Ms. Taylor’s boyfriend), believing the officers were intruders, fired one warning shot towards the ground from his licensed gun. The prosecution alleged that Mr. Walker’s bullet hit Sergeant Jonathan Mattingly in the leg, however, according to a ballistics report, the bullet that struck Sergeant Mattingly was neither “identified nor eliminated as having been fired” from Mr. Walker’s gun.

In response to Mr. Walker’s warning shot, LMPD officers Mattingly, Myles Cosgrove, and Brett Hankison discharged 32 rounds into the dark apartment, without identifying a target and without an ability to see where their bullets would land. Five of these rounds, fired by Sergeant Mattingly and Detective Cosgrove, and another projectile struck Ms. Taylor, with one causing her death. Of the remaining 27 rounds, former Detective Hankison fired 10.

 LDF President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill joined MSNBC’s Chris Hayes to discuss the decision in the Breonna Taylor case.

Overview of Grand Jury Proceedings

A grand jury in Kentucky consists of a group of citizens who decide whether to formally charge a person with a felony offense. A prosecutor presents evidence of a criminal offense to the grand jury, as well as the list of charges on which the accused may be indicted. A grand jury can also request that prosecutors draft additional charges with which they may not have been initially presented. Under the Kentucky Rules of Criminal Procedure, grand juries are “charge[d] … to inquire into every offense for which any person has been held to answer and for which an indictment or information has not been filed, or other offenses which come to their attention or of which any of them has knowledge.” After all evidence is presented, the grand jurors deliberate to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to support an indictment and require the accused to stand trial.

Five months after Ms. Taylor’s killing, AG Cameron responded to sustained public demands for an independent investigation of the incident. Over the course of three days, beginning on September 21, 2020, a prosecutor for the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office presented evidence to a grand jury regarding the shooting of Ms. Taylor and the surrounding events. The grand jury listened to interviews and recorded phone calls, viewed videos and photographs, and had the opportunity to ask questions of the prosecutor. The publicly released recordings of the grand jury hearings do not include the presentation of charges by the AG Cameron to the grand jury; however, according to a statement from an anonymous grand juror, “[t]he grand jury was not presented any charges other than the three wanton endangerment charges against Detective Hankison.”

LMPD’s Public Integrity Unit (“PIU”) developed the evidence that the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office presented to the grand jury. PIU investigated events surrounding Ms. Taylor’s killing by reviewing, among other things, videos and photographs of the scene, Ms. Taylor’s autopsy report, emails from individuals involved, and social media posts related to the incident. PIU also interviewed four of Ms. Taylor’s neighbors and 15 responding LMPD and Special Weapons and Tactics Team officers. Following the investigation, LMPD terminated then-Detective Hankison for violating LMPD policies when he “displayed an extreme indifference to human life” by “wantonly and blindly” firing into Ms. Taylor’s apartment without identifying any immediate threat. Sergeant Mattingly and Detective Cosgrove, who fired the bullets that struck Ms. Taylor, were placed on administrative leave.

In the press conference held by AG Cameron on September 23, 2020, discussing the grand jury process, he asserted that the warrant was not served as a no-knock warrant, that the officers’ shots were all discharged in a matter of seconds, and that two of the LMPD officers who fired into Ms. Taylor’s apartment were justified in doing so, all of which are disputed points. The only charges brought by the grand jury were charges for wanton endangerment against one of the three officers for shooting into a neighboring apartment.

The following audio recordings from the grand jury proceedings are provided and compiled by the Louisville Courier-Journal

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To increase transparency about the grand jury process, and accessibility to the proceedings for members of the public, counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund transcribed the audio recordings and compiled the below transcripts. They are not official transcripts. Every effort has been made to provide complete and accurate information; any inaccuracies are unintentional.

Day 1: September 21, 2020 Transcripts

Day 2: September 22, 2020 Transcripts

Day 3: September 23, 2020 Transcripts

Bias and Flaws in the Presentation of the Case to the Grand Jury
  • The Kentucky Attorney General’s Office’s Presentation of Evidence to Grand Jurors Revealed a Bias to Protect the Involved Officers
  • AG Cameron’s Presentation of the Evidence to Grand Jurors Revealed a Bias to Protect the Involved Officers.
    • Prosecutors relied heavily on one witness who supported the LMPD officers’ version of events, despite contrary statements from multiple witnesses.
    • Prosecutors failed to present body camera video or audio evidence and failed to explain the lack of such evidence.
    • Prosecutors played prejudicial and irrelevant questioning of Mr. Walker to the grand jury and failed to show evidence of racial bias against the witness.
    • The prosecution misled the grand jury regarding the validity of the search warrant.
    • Prosecutors failed to present evidence showing LMPD officers violated department protocol.
  • Failure to Adequately Respond to Juror Inquires.
  • Failure to Publicly Release Provision of Instructions to the Jury.
Recommendations and Conclusion
  • The Kentucky Attorney General’s Office did not make a fair and comprehensive presentation to the grand jury about the involved officers’ conduct that led to Ms. Taylor’s killing, but instead displayed an inappropriate bias in favor of the officers. This bias was evidenced by the prosecution’s decision to omit homicide charges based on an erroneous interpretation of Kentucky state law, the selective presentation of evidence that benefited the officers, and the failure to respond adequately to grand juror inquiries that could have led to unfavorable facts about the officers.
  • Consistent with the request of Ms. Taylor’s family, AG Cameron, through the Office of the Prosecutors Advisory Council, should appoint a special prosecutor to resubmit the case of the LMPD officers’ actions in the shooting of Ms. Taylor to a new grand jury, present all relevant evidence and applicable charges, allow the grand jury to pursue additional charges beyond the prosecutors’ recommendation where the grand jury deems it appropriate, and fully explain the principles of self-defense and their applicability to Ms. Taylor’s death.
  • The Governor should call for legislation to establish a process for the appointment of special prosecutors in cases involving potential criminal wrongdoing by law enforcement officers, governed by standards that ensure independent investigation and impartial prosecution of law enforcement officers, when warranted.
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