clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Kentucky AG releases Breonna Taylor grand jury audio recordings

The 20 hours of audio have been made public after a juror requested that AG Daniel Cameron share “the whole truth.”

People gather in Louisville, Kentucky, awaiting word on charges against police officers on September 23.
Darron Cummings/AP
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

The Kentucky attorney general’s office released about 20 hours of audio recordings from the Breonna Taylor grand jury on Friday, after being ordered by a judge to do so.

The highly anticipated audio files capture the full case that AG Daniel Cameron presented to the grand jury from September 21 to 23, including which witnesses they heard and the team’s presentation that led to the indictment of former Louisville Metro Police Department officer Brett Hankison.

On September 23, Hankison was indicted on three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment for threatening the lives of Taylor’s neighbors when he fired bullets that went through Taylor’s apartment into theirs. The two other officers who fired shots into the apartment that night hitting Taylor — Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly and detective Myles Cosgrove — were not indicted.

Rallying cries across the nation turned from “arrest the cops” to “release the transcripts” of the grand jury proceedings shortly after the decision was announced, as many wondered why no officers were charged with actually killing Taylor and what the attorney general’s office specifically presented to the jury.

On Monday, a juror filed a motion criticizing Cameron’s public characterization of the case and demanding the release of the transcripts. According to the unidentified juror, Cameron did not give the panel the opportunity to indict the two officers who shot Taylor. In the motion, the juror said their request to have the recordings released is an effort to share “only the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Cameron’s office confirmed on Monday that the only charge he recommended to the grand jury was wanton endangerment, not any of the six felony homicide charges under Kentucky law, according to the Washington Post. Cameron had previously declined to say what charges he presented to the grand jury.

At a Louisville press conference last Friday, Taylor’s family and their attorneys gathered to express their dissatisfaction with the grand jury’s decision and questioned what Cameron presented. “Did he present any evidence on Breonna Taylor’s behalf? Or did he make a unilateral decision to put his thumb on the scales of justice?” attorney Benjamin Crump asked.

The nation had been awaiting the decision in the criminal investigation all summer. Cameron said he presented his findings to the grand jury beginning on Monday, September 21, and the jury made its decision by noon on Wednesday, September 23. The announcement came nearly 200 days after Taylor was shot dead by police while she was asleep in her apartment on March 13. As news of the incident drew attention in early May and picked up steam after the police killing of George Floyd later that month, protests broke out across the country.

The scene outside Jefferson Square, where people were awaiting word on charges against police officers in the killing of Breonna Taylor.
Darron Cummings/AP

Over time, the phrase “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” became a rallying cry for activists — as well as the focal point of countless memes. The phrase was plastered on T-shirts worn by athletes at sporting events and big-name actors at the Emmys. Many pointed out that Black women killed by police don’t often receive much attention, or justice, in matters of police violence, and now was the time to correct that.

The tapes might answer a number of questions that activists and the Taylor family’s attorneys have raised, like which witnesses Cameron’s office allowed to testify and whether the office presented pieces of evidence — sending the ambulance away before the raid, the many witnesses who have said they did not hear the police knock and announce themselves — that reportedly show the police violated protocol. As the tapes are parsed, the coming days may reveal new insight in the decision.

What is wanton endangerment?

The grand jury decision caused outcry across the nation over what many see as a weak indictment charge. Hankison was charged not with killing Taylor, but with endangering her neighbors.

Wanton endangerment in the first degree is a class D felony in the state of Kentucky. If convicted, Hankison could face up to five years in prison for each count. He could, alternatively, be required to pay fines and complete probation and community service.

Kentucky law defines wanton endangerment in the first degree as:

A person is guilty of wanton endangerment in the first degree when, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, he wantonly engages in conduct which creates a substantial danger of death or serious physical injury to another person.

While there are six charges of homicide under Kentucky law, Cameron said his office did not pursue them because officers Cosgrove and Mattingly were justified in firing their weapons since Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, shot at them that night. “Use of force by Mattingly and Cosgrove was justified to protect themselves. This justification bars us from pursuing criminal charges,” Cameron said.

Hankison, meanwhile, was only charged in connection to the fact that he fired his weapon and his bullets traveled through Taylor’s apartment to a neighboring residence where three civilians were at the time, according to the special investigation.

During the course of the investigation, the Louisville Metro Police Department terminated Hankison because it found he “displayed an extreme indifference to the value of human life” when he “wantonly and blindly” fired 10 rounds into Taylor’s apartment, according to his termination letter. The reason for Hankison’s termination essentially mirrors the decision of the grand jury. Mattingly and Cosgrove were placed on administrative reassignment in May.

The grand jury announcement revealed a new version of what happened during the early hours of March 13

Cameron’s version of events of the raid on March 13 both differs from and fills in the gaps of the story that has been pieced together in news reports over months.

On the night Taylor was killed, police relied on a no-knock warrant to enter her apartment in search of two people suspected of selling drugs, neither of whom was Taylor. While police say they announced themselves, Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, who was inside the apartment at the time, disputes that claim.

In his grand jury announcement on September 23, Cameron announced developments on this particular detail. According to the attorney general, there was an independent witness (a civilian) near Taylor’s apartment who said that officers knocked and announced themselves. “The warrant was not served as a no-knock warrant,” Cameron said.

When no one answered the door, officers breached it. The first officer to enter was Mattingly, who, in a statement, said he identified two individuals standing beside one another — Walker and Taylor — with the man holding a gun with his arms extended in a shooting stance. “Sergeant Mattingly saw the man’s gun fire, heard a boom, and immediately knew he was shot as a result of feeling heat in his upper thigh,” Cameron said.

According to the ballistics report, Mattingly was shot once by a 9 mm handgun, the gun that belonged to Walker. Mattingly fired six shots back down the hallway. Meanwhile, Detective Cosgrove shot 16 times, all in a matter of seconds.

In total, six bullets hit Taylor, Cameron revealed (her death certificate had noted she was shot five times, and Taylor’s lawyer had previously said she was struck a total of eight times), with a ballistics report from the FBI concluding Cosgrove fired the fatal shot. Determining who fired the fatal shot was integral to the investigation and extended the length of it, Cameron said. But since Cosgrove was justified in his use of force because they were fired upon by Walker, Cameron said, he would not be charged.

Hankison, meanwhile, fired 10 shots from outside the apartment, with some bullets going through the bedroom window, through Taylor’s apartment and into the neighboring one. At the time, three residents of that apartment were at home, including a man, a pregnant woman, and a child. “There is no conclusive evidence that any bullets fired from Detective Hankison’s weapons struck Ms. Taylor,” Cameron said.

Cameron said his team of investigators reconstructed the events that took place that night by reviewing ballistics evidence, 911 calls, police radio traffic, and interviews. Video footage — Cameron did not say from where — began at the point when area patrol officers arrived at the location. They also used information from the Kentucky State Police local medical examiner’s lab and the FBI crime lab in Quantico.

At the September 25 press conference, the family’s attorney, Crump, cast doubt on Cameron’s investigation and demanded that the attorney general release the transcripts of the case he presented before the grand jury. Crump alleged that Cameron may have left out key details and witnesses in his presentation.

“Did he tell them about the 12 neighbors ... that live in close proximity of Breonna’s apartment that all said they did not hear the police knock and announce their presence — did he let him testify before the grand jury?” Crump said. “Did he let the cops who shot over 30 rounds of bullets in Breonna’s apartment ... testify before the grand jury? Did he allow Breonna’s boyfriend, Kenny Walker, to testify before the grand jury?”

He also raised concerns about policy lapses around the no-knock warrant, saying, “If he didn’t present these things to the grand jury, what kind of sham grand jury proceeding was this?”

Crump said the lack of transparency follows a pattern of “blatant disrespect and marginalization of Black people,” but especially Black women who have been killed by police.

At the press conference, attorney Lonita Baker also demanded that Cameron tell the public whether he recommended charges to the grand jury.

“I don’t want to hear that the grand jury determined this, if it’s your office that unilaterally determined not to charge any officers with the death of Breanna Taylor,” Baker said. “You can’t pawn this on the grand jury if your office made that decision. We the voters deserve to know who is it that we need to say got it wrong.”

Now that Cameron has confirmed he recommended the wanton endangerment charge for Hankison, this new information sheds light on some of the constraints the grand jury faced. As the jurors wrote in their motion, “Using the grand jurors as a shield to deflect accountability and responsibility for these decisions only sows more seeds of doubt in the process while leaving a cold chill down the spines of future grand jurors.”

As Anna North reports, many others wonder if the attorney general, a protégé of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who spoke glowingly of President Trump at the Republican National Convention, truly did his best as a prosecutor to secure indictments in the Taylor case. (Cameron’s office has not responded to Vox’s request for comment.)

“There are questions as to whether he really did the job he could’ve done,” Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, told North.

Amy McGrath, who is running for McConnell’s Kentucky Senate seat, had also called on Cameron to be more transparent. “AG Cameron needs to release the grand jury report now, including what evidence and recommendations he chose to present,” McGrath tweeted on September 24. “We shouldn’t have to take his word for it.”

What happens next in the fight for justice in Louisville

In the wake of the grand jury announcement, protests erupted in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, Seattle, Washington, DC, and Portland on September 23. In Louisville, where the decision was delivered, protesters didn’t let barricades, a curfew, the presence of police officers in riot gear, or the presence of the National Guard deter them from pouring out into the streets to say Breonna Taylor’s name. People marched around downtown declaring that the city and law enforcement officials had failed them.

By early the next morning, police had arrested 127 people in Louisville, according to the Courier-Journal, and one suspect was taken into custody in connection with the shooting of two city police officers, who sustained non-life-threatening injuries, according to interim Louisville Metro Police Chief Robert Schroeder.

Later that night, protests continued throughout the country. In Louisville, at least two dozen more were arrested, according to the Courier-Journal. Among those arrested were Kentucky state Rep. Attica Scott, who led the local effort to ban no-knock warrants, and activist Shameka Parrish-Wright of Louisville’s Bail Project. At First Unitarian Church, hundreds of protesters sought sanctuary to avoid being arrested for violating the city’s 9 pm curfew.

In Los Angeles, protesters took to the streets and police detained a man for reportedly driving his vehicle through a crowd of protesters. In Portland, after police declared the local Breonna Taylor protest a riot and used OC gas (similar to pepper spray) to disperse crowds the previous night, protesters returned. The same happened in Seattle, where an officer was captured on video rolling a bike over a protester’s head the night prior (the officer has since been placed on administrative leave). Protests also continued in Rochester, Baltimore, Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia and in other cities throughout the week and into the weekend.

On September 15, the city of Louisville announced it had reached a $12 million settlement with Taylor’s family and attorneys — the largest sum the city has ever paid out for a police misconduct suit. The settlement was in response to a lawsuit Taylor’s family filed in April, alleging excessive force and gross negligence on the part of the officers. A court filing submitted by the family in July alleged that Taylor did not receive emergency medical aid after she was shot, and that the drug raid on her apartment was part of a government-backed development scheme to clear out a block in Taylor’s neighborhood.

While the settlement included a list of police reforms, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said it was not an acknowledgment of wrongdoing on the city’s part. Cameron also announced he would create a task force of citizens, law enforcement officials, and elected officials to review the state’s process for securing, reviewing, and executing search warrants.

He also acknowledged that many would not be satisfied with the grand jury’s decision but fervently urged the country to accept “the truth.” But with the recordings of the sessions set to be released this week, the public may get a fuller picture of the truth. According to critics, the truth requires that Cameron be more transparent with his process and accountable to the public.

Cameron was assigned the case as special prosecutor in May and in the past five months revealed few details about the independent investigation. Meanwhile, activists have pressed lawmakers to defund the local police department. While Louisville’s Metro Council did vote unanimously in June to ban no-knock warrants, it also approved a budget that wouldn’t even begin to defund LMPD. The new spending plan will merely “require police to put the money toward recruiting a more diverse force, additional training and exploring co-responder models that could send behavioral health professionals on calls with officers,” according to the Courier-Journal.

The FBI is still investigating Taylor’s killing for possible civil rights violations.