In Taylor case, limits of law overcome calls for justice

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Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron addresses the media following the return of a grand jury investigation into the death of Breonna Taylor, in Frankfort, Ky., Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Of the three Louisville Metro police officers being investigated, one was indicted. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

“Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” became a rallying cry this summer, emblazoned on T-shirts worn by celebrities and sports stars while protesters filled the streets demanding police accountability. In the end, none of the officers were charged with Taylor's killing, although one was indicted for shooting into a neighboring home that had people inside.

The outcome demonstrates the vast disconnect between widespread public expectation of justice and the limits of the law when police use deadly force.

“Criminal law is not meant to respond to every sorrow and grief," Attorney General Daniel Cameron, the first African American elected to the job in Kentucky, told reporters after the grand jury announced its decision on Wednesday. “And that is, that is true here. But my heart breaks for the loss of Miss Taylor."

Taylor, a 26-year-old Louisville emergency medical worker studying to become a nurse, was shot several times in her hallway after three plainclothes narcotics detectives busted down the door of her apartment after midnight on March 13. The officers entered the home as part of an investigation into a suspect who lived across town. No drugs were found at Taylor’s home.

Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, was with her at the apartment and fired a shot at Louisville police Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly after the door was broken down. Walker has said he fired because he feared he was being robbed or that it might be an ex-boyfriend of Taylor’s trying to get in. Mattingly was struck in the leg and returned fire, along with other officers who were outside the apartment.

But the officers who opened fire on Taylor were determined by prosecutors to be justified in using force because they acted in self defense. The officer who shot into a neighbor's apartment was the one who was charged with a felony. Brett Hankison faces up to five years in prison on each of the three wanton endangerment charges.

The grand jury's decision was swiftly condemned by activists, celebrities and others as a shocking miscarriage of justice. Minutes after the announcement, demonstrators began to march down one of the main Louisville thoroughfares, chanting “No justice, no peace.”

“The rallying cries that have been echoing throughout the nation have been once again ignored by a justice system that claims to serve the people," said attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Taylor's family. “But when a justice system only acts in the best interest of the most privileged and whitest among us, it has failed."