Monday, September 25

Breonna Taylor: Trial asks if Brett Hankison acted with ‘extreme indifference’ to life

Taylor’s death is likely to linger in the background of the trial, where prosecutors will try to prove that Hankison endangered a man, a pregnant woman and a child in the other apartment. During jury selection, defense attorney Stew Mathews told potential jurors that the case has both nothing and everything to do with Taylor.

Hankison is accused of firing 10 shots, including through a bedroom window, which put Cody Etherton, Chelsey Napper and their child in harm’s way. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R), whose office is prosecuting the case, has said there is no conclusive evidence that any of Hankison’s shots struck Taylor. He has said another officer who was later terminated, Myles Cosgrove, fired the fatal shot.

Hankison is free on bond and faces a potential sentence of up to five years in prison per count if convicted. Previously, he was fired from the police force for allegedly showing “extreme indifference to the value of human life” — language that mirrors the wanton endangerment charges — during the drug raid on Taylor’s home. (Narcotics were not found in her apartment.)

The start of opening arguments follows several days of questioning to select a jury for the high-profile case. Jefferson County Circuit Judge Ann Bailey Smith twice denied requests from Mathews to move the trial to another jurisdiction where potential jurors might be less familiar with the killing of Taylor, a Black 26-year-old emergency-room technician.

During questioning, attorneys for both sides asked potential jurors if they had established opinions about the case or Louisville police, whittling down a pool of 250 people to 12 jurors and three alternates. prosecutor Barbara Maines Whaley has said she plans to call about 30 witnesses, while Hankison and several other current and former Louisville officers are expected to testify for the defense.

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Jonathan Mattingly, a now-retired officer who also fired during the raid, plans to invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to testify while the Justice Department is investigating the shooting, the Associated Press reported. Jurors instead will hear part of a videotaped deposition that he gave in an ongoing civil lawsuit filed by Etherton and Napper.

To prove wanton endangerment, Whaley is tasked with showing that Hankison displayed “extreme indifference” to life and put someone at risk of serious injury or death. Kentucky law defines wanton behavior as occurring when a person “consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk” in a way that a reasonable person would not.

Wanton endangerment charges are often brought when someone shoots a gun into the air or out a car window without hitting anyone, said Michael Thompson, a criminal defense attorney in southwest Kentucky. In Hankison’s trial, he said he expects the attorneys to display maps showing where people were at specific moments and in what direction Hankison fired.

Defense attorneys may note Hankison’s years of service and contend that he followed his training and he had to make an immediate decision about whether to shoot, Thompson said.

“You hear a gunshot from a house that you believe is dangerous enough to be doing a no-knock in a drug house,” Thompson said he would argue if he were defending Hankison. “His training from him ‘s going to kick in, and he’s going to act instantaneously to return fire to protect his fellow officers — that but for them firing the first shot he would n’t have fired into the house.”

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Prosecutors, for their part, will probably focus much of their questioning on whether Hankison deviated from his training, said Kami Chavis, a law professor at Wake Forest University with expertise in police accountability. She said they may argue that Hankison should have assumed nearby apartments would be occupied at that early-morning hour and that shooting in the dark could harm other people.

In this case, the other people who were affected were not involved in the raid on Taylor’s apartment. While it is generally difficult to convict police officers of crimes, Chavis said prosecutors may benefit from the fact that the alleged victims in this trial were just going about their lives at home. She said jurors may find them more sympathetic than suspects who are injured or killed in police shootings.

Chavis added that a conviction would be meaningful, despite not setting broader questions about police use of force.

“This is not going to satisfy the need for justice for [Taylor’s] death,” she said. “But I also don’t think that we should underestimate the impact of a criminal charge for the officer in this case — because those other people, they were harmed.”

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