The case of Breonna Taylor — the 26-year-old Black woman who was shot and killed by Louisville police in her own home in March — has offered a sobering and rare glimpse into grand juries and how prosecutors can use them to produce the end results they desire.
Because of the secretive nature of grand juries, how a case is presented to grand jurors often remains unknown to the public.
However, because of a Kentucky judge’s ruling last week, jurors from the case were able to speak publicly about the proceedings.
Two of the jurors have made statements and also appeared on CBS this week, confirming that Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) didn’t present any murder charges for any of the three Louisville police officers involved in the killing of Taylor.
Ohio State University law professor Ric Simmons described the grand juror’s behavior as “extraordinarily rare.”
“A grand jury's secrecy is almost absolute,” Simmons said.
The grand jury’s decision was controversial, and Cameron had previously defended his office’s actions. No charges were brought against any officers for Taylor’s death, though one officer does face charges related to bullets that entered Taylor’s neighbor’s apartment.
In a September interview, Cameron said that if the jurors “wanted to make an assessment about different charges, they could have done that.”
In reality, that almost never happens, Simmons and other law professors told The Hill.
“Because prosecutors have such a large influence over the grand jury, the likelihood that the grand jury is going to go do things that the prosecutor doesn't want them to do, is, in most cases, very small,” Andrew Leipold, who teaches law at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, said.
“In some ways, the presence of the grand jury can be … a little distorting, because it suggests that it's ultimately the grand jury's decision, what charges to bring what witnesses to call, what information to solicit. … But in fact, in most cases — the overwhelming number of cases — it’s the prosecutor who runs the show.”
Simmons added: “Police use-of-force cases are by far the most common when we see this issue where the prosecutors want to make it look as though they are moving forward with the case but they, in truth, don’t want to indict, and so they use a grand jury sort of as a political cover.”
Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and former assistant U.S. Attorney in Detroit, said that grand juries have “completely become a tool of the prosecutor.”
Each state operates their non-federal grand juries differently, but many utilize the usually private panel in police lethal force cases — cases that force prosecutors to weigh indicting members of an entity that they normally work alongside.
The past decade has featured numerous instances of grand juries declining to indict police officers who killed Black Americans, a perceived lack of justice that fueled racial tensions in the country, ultimately boiling over this summer.
Osler noted his proximity to George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police in May. Floyd’s death led to massive protests in the Twin Cities and nationwide. Both Floyd and Taylor became focal points in a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement this summer, demanding the end of police brutality and systemic racism in the country.
“Part of what built up the pressure over the years in Minneapolis was grand juries not indicting police officers,” Osler explained.
A high-profile example similar to Taylor’s case, Simmons said, is the case of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Black child who was shot and killed by Cleveland police in 2014.
“It was almost identical to this case,” Simmons said. “The prosecutor [at] the press conference and said, ‘well, the grand jury didn't like this case,’ and everyone thought that meant they voted not to indict. But in fact, some investigative reporting showed that murder charges were never brought to the grand jury, just like in this case.”
Leipold said that Taylor’s case is “an example of the limited role that the grand jury plays” and that accountability for the decision of the panel “should rest with the prosecutor and the prosecutor's office,” not the grand jury.
“It's an example of a prosecutor who didn't want to take responsibility for his decision. That's what it looks like,” Simmons said.
Attorney Kevin Glogower, who is representing the two jurors who have come forward to talk, has said that the jurors questioned the possibility of more serious charges, but were informed by Cameron’s office that they “didn’t feel they could make them stick."
One of the jurors who has spoken out has made it clear that the grand jury didn’t believe that the actions of the police officers were justified, like Cameron had said.
“The grand jury didn't agree that certain actions were justified, nor did it decide the indictment should be the only charges in the Breonna Taylor case,” the juror said in a statement. “The grand jury was not given the opportunity to deliberate on those charges and deliberated only on what was presented to them. I cannot speak for other jurors, but I can help the truth be told.”
The only officer that the grand jury charged was former officer Brett Hankison.
He was indicted on three counts of wanton endangerment. Per the attorney general, none of the 10 bullets that Hankison fired in Taylor's apartment hit her. Instead, multiple shots fired by Hankison traveled into an adjacent apartment where three people unrelated to the case resided, which is why he was charged. Hankison was fired from the force in June when it was found that he fired “blindly” into Taylor’s apartment.
Hankison and two other Louisville Metropolitan Police Department officers, Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove, entered Taylor's apartment while executing a no-knock search warrant on March 13. Taylor and her boyfriend Kenneth Walker were asleep at the time.
Police were granted the no-knock warrant under the belief that Taylor's ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover, had been using her apartment as a place to keep drugs and money, but neither were found in Taylor's apartment.
Walker, who has said he thought the officers were intruders, opened fire. The trio returned fire, hitting Taylor numerous times and killing her.
Six shots from Mattingly and Cosgrove hit Taylor, with one of the bullets fired by Cosgrove proving to be fatal. However, Cameron said that under Kentucky law, the officers were “justified” in their use of deadly force since Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, shot first.