Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron began his announcement of the grand jury decision in the Breonna Taylor case on Wednesday by offering condolences to Taylor’s family.
“Every day, this family wakes up to the realization that someone they loved is no longer with them,” he said. “There’s nothing I can offer today to take away the grief and heartache this family is experiencing as a result of losing a child, a niece, a sister, and a friend.”
But, Cameron went on, “the criminal law is not meant to respond to every sorrow and grief.”
The first Black attorney general of his state and a rising star in the Republican Party, Cameron had taken the podium that day to announce that no one would be directly charged in Taylor’s killing by Louisville police officers (former officer Brett Hankison was indicted on three counts of wanton endangerment for putting Taylor’s neighbors at risk). Cameron described this outcome as the only one possible under the law, but many have questioned his handling of the case. Some 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 for this story.)
“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 Vox.
Cameron’s handling of the Taylor case has also thrown a spotlight on the role of attorneys general — elected officials who may not be above partisan politics — in leading investigations when Black Americans are killed by police. And it’s raised questions about whether Cameron will pay a political price for the appearance of partisanship — or be rewarded for it.
Cameron has ties to both McConnell and Trump
At just 34, Cameron has risen swiftly to power in Kentucky. While in law school at the University of Louisville, he interned for McConnell’s Senate office, according to the Washington Post. In 2015, he became McConnell’s general counsel, and a few years later, the senator encouraged him to run for attorney general.
McConnell’s help was likely instrumental to Cameron’s campaign, many say. The majority leader “is a master politician,” Clayton said. “I’m sure that helped open some doors for him.”
Cameron also earned Trump’s admiration when McConnell brought him to the White House in July 2019. The president reportedly asked Cameron, “Did you see what I’m doing for A$AP Rocky?” — a reference to Trump’s effort to get the rapper released from prison in Sweden. The president later endorsed Cameron, tweeting, “the Republican Party has a new STAR.”
Cameron won his race handily, becoming not just Kentucky’s first Black attorney general but also its first independently elected Black state official (other Black politicians have been elected as running mates). He’s also the state’s first Republican attorney general in more than 70 years.
Beyond his closeness with McConnell and, apparently, Trump, Cameron hasn’t yet established a clear political identity, many say. He was seen as less conservative than his primary opponent, state legislator Wil Schroder. But as one Kentucky Republican told the Post: “people in the party still don’t know what he stands for.”
However, there have been clues. In March, Cameron joined top officials in other conservative states by calling for a ban on abortion during the pandemic. “Abortion providers should join the thousands of other medical professionals across the state in ceasing elective procedures, unless the life of the mother is at risk, to protect the health of their patients and slow the spread of the coronavirus,” he said in a statement.
Cameron also attempted to overturn Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s restrictions to limit the spread of Covid-19, filing a motion calling them “an arbitrary and unreasonable burden” on Kentuckians.
He has also made his support among police officers a point of pride, noting in his official biography that he was endorsed by his state’s Fraternal Order of Police.
“He is tough on Crime, Strong on Borders, and will fight for our Second Amendment,” Trump tweeted in his July endorsement. “Daniel will never let you down.”
As the investigation into Taylor’s death dragged on, Cameron appeared at the Republican National Convention
The president had already put Cameron on the nationwide stage to some degree last year, but he became the subject of more public attention when, in May, his office opened an investigation into Taylor’s killing. Taylor was fatally shot at her home on March 13, but her death received little official response until her family filed a lawsuit — and until protesters around the country began demanding justice in her case, as well as those of George Floyd and other Black Americans killed by police.
Getting justice in Taylor’s death became a key focus of many protests throughout the summer, with her name trending across social media and her image becoming a symbol of Black lives ended too soon by police violence — her portrait was even on the cover of Vanity Fair. Meanwhile, the Louisville Courier-Journal and others pushed for more records to be made public, but for months, Cameron’s office remained relatively silent on its findings in the investigation.
In August, however, Cameron appeared at the Republican National Convention, where he decried protesters and praised the president and his party. “Even as anarchists mindlessly tear up American cities while attacking police and innocent bystanders, we Republicans do recognize those who work in good faith towards peace, justice, and equality,” he said.
“Joe Biden would destroy jobs, raise our taxes, and throw away the lives of countless unborn children,” he went on, claiming that Trump has built “an economy that worked for everyone, especially minorities, and he will do it again.”
The speech mentioned Taylor only once, alongside David Dorn, a retired police officer killed in a burglary during protests in St. Louis in June.
Some questioned Cameron’s decision to speak at the convention while the investigation into Taylor’s death was ongoing. “It was a misstep,” Clayton said, explaining that in the Taylor investigation, “his role is trying to be an independent arbiter,” not a political figure.
But now some are questioning whether Clayton has been able to leave politics aside in the Taylor case.
With no charges filed in Taylor’s death, some are questioning Cameron’s role
Ultimately, the decision on charges for the three officers involved in Taylor’s death rested with a grand jury. But as attorney general, it was Cameron’s job to act as prosecutor, making the state’s case in an effort to, if appropriate, gain an indictment. “Normally as prosecutor, his or her role is to gain a conviction, and you start that process by gaining an indictment,” Clayton said.
The question, given Cameron’s closeness to police in Kentucky, as well as to Trump, who has dismissed those protesting the deaths of Taylor and others as “thugs,” is whether Cameron really fulfilled his role as prosecutor to the best of his ability.
Indeed, several Kentucky Democrats, including Amy McGrath, who is running for McConnell’s Senate seat, have called on Cameron to release the grand jury report in the case, so that the public can see how the decision was made. “AG Cameron needs to release the grand jury report now, including what evidence and recommendations he chose to present,” McGrath tweeted on Thursday. “We shouldn’t have to take his word for it.”
In a press conference on Friday, Taylor family attorney Ben Crump also called for the release of documents in the case, and questioned Cameron’s role.
“Did he present any evidence in Breonna Taylor’s behalf?” Crump asked. “Or did he put his thumb on the scales of justice?”
And Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, made her feelings clear at a memorial for her daughter on Thursday, wearing a T-shirt bearing Cameron’s face and the words “Mitch Bitch.”
The attorney general says politics never entered into his work. “My team set out to investigate the circumstances surrounding Ms. Taylor’s death,” he said on Wednesday. “We did it with a singular goal in mind: pursuing the truth.”
But despite these assurances, Taylor’s case has become part of a pattern — in which police officers are rarely charged in killings of civilians, and even more rarely convicted. Though about 1,000 people are killed by law enforcement officers every year, only 121 officers have been arrested on murder or manslaughter charges since 2005, according to the New York Times. And just 44 have been convicted, often on lesser charges.
These numbers speak to the difficulty of holding officers accountable in a system that gives them disproportionate power. And attorneys general like Cameron, even if they profess to impartiality, are a part of that system too.
As for Cameron himself, it’s not clear how his role in Taylor’s case will impact his political future. On the one hand, “there are a lot of Republicans in this state, and they like hearing what they hear from him,” Clayton said. “He’s been a ‘law and order’ type of candidate and attorney general.”
On the other hand, there are plenty of voters who may remember his decision to speak on behalf of Trump at the RNC while his investigation into Taylor’s death dragged on. “There is some behavior on his part now that he will in essence have to answer for later on in politics,” Clayton said. “This may come back to haunt him.”
But with the next election for attorney general not until 2023, it will be a while before voters get a chance to have their say.