From the cover of Vanity Fair’s September issue, Breonna Taylor gazes evenly at the viewer, seafoam dress flowing, wearing an engagement ring her boyfriend never got to give her. She is calm and beautiful. The painting is the elevated form of the many popular tributes depicting Taylor, at times wreathed in flowers or even wearing a halo.
Since Taylor’s story caught the nation’s attention in May, nearly two months after police shot and killed her at home, supporters have highlighted her best attributes: Taylor was an emergency room technician, she dreamed of becoming a nurse, she was fun. Most importantly, they say, she was innocent.
The city of Louisville is on edge as residents await a decision from Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron on whether the officers who killed Breonna Taylor should be charged. Meanwhile, recent leaks suggest Taylor was closely linked to drug trafficking, leading some to worry there’s a smear campaign underway.
Kristin Nicole Dukes, the dean for Institutional Diversity at Allegheny College, said some feel it’s necessary to focus on the positives when it comes to Black shooting victims, because others may zero in on the negatives.
“The fact that we have to go out of our way to paint her in this way to humanize her it’s like, honestly, it’s pathetic, that we have to go to that length to humanize someone that was killed,” Dukes said.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer criticized the first leak linking Taylor to trafficking two weeks ago, when the Louisville Courier Journal published details of a police report and jailhouse calls that detailed the police’s position and evidence. It was reportedly compiled after Taylor’s killing.
“Obviously Breonna’s passing has been a terrible tragedy for the community and for her family,” Fischer said last week. “Any attempt to link her, it’s just not relevant to the investigation that’s taking place right now, so it’s not helpful.”
Fischer said Taylor did not deserve to die, and it would be unjust to draw conclusions based on limited information. He told WFPL in an emailed statement, “efforts to sway opinion and impact the investigation by releasing select information are wrong and divisive, at a time when our city needs unity more than ever before.”
A representative for the Louisville Metro Police Department declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
The Court Of Public Opinion
Attorney Lonita Baker is part of a team representing Taylor’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit. She denied Taylor was involved in drugs, or was even still connected to her ex-boyfriend Jamarcus Glover, who was a main target of the narcotics investigation that led police to her door. Baker said even if the allegations were true, it wouldn’t matter.
“If people thought she was a drug dealer, it would not have justified her murder, the way that she was murdered,” Baker said. “But she was not. And you know, once people are able to see all of the evidence, they will agree that she was not.”
Plain-clothes police shot and killed Taylor during a middle-of-the-night raid. Her boyfriend Kenneth Walker fired one shot because he said he thought they were intruders. Police say it was that shot that injured an officer. Police returned fire, with five bullets striking Taylor and killing her. They documented finding no drugs or money in her apartment.
Criminal investigations by Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron and the FBI are pending.
Baker, a former prosecutor, said she thinks there have been intentional attempts to smear Taylor’s name.
Sam Aguiar, another lawyer on Baker’s team posted an image of a plea offer for Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, Glover, that listed Taylor as a co-defendant. Glover told the Courier Journal he didn’t take the offer from the Commonwealth’s Attorney because Taylor wasn’t involved.
“It’s disappointing,” Baker said. “It borders along the lines of unethical.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine defended his actions in a statement to WFPL. He emphasized it was the family’s lawyer who released the plea document that he said smeared Taylor by reminding the public that Glover used her to further his drug trafficking.
“The truth, Mr. Glover’s criminal activities, not a smear, brought the police to Ms. Taylor’s door on March 13, 2020. And the truth, not a smear of Ms. Taylor, is contained in the facts on the July 21 plea sheet, the only version that would have ever been filed in a public record,” Wine said.
Wine’s office revoked the July 21 plea offer when Glover became a fugitive in late July after failing to pay a $50,000 bond. Glover was arrested related to that last month.
With the criminal investigations ongoing, there could be practical implications due to shifts in public opinion, said Dukes.
She has studied how people assign fault to victims in fictional shooting situations, particularly based on media portrayals of those incidents.
“If you paint this negative, Black, stereotypic portrayal of the victim in the media, what you get is this lasting implication in the arena of public opinion,” Dukes said.
Her research found describing a fictional victim with those stereotypes led study participants to blame the victim more, and the shooter less, even when it came to charging them.
Dukes said the public wants information about shooting victims, and in some cases it humanizes them. But Taylor’s image is more complicated.
“We’re able to talk about humans, everyday people, flaws and all,” she said. “Breonna Taylor isn’t being afforded that opportunity. And in that way, she isn’t human. She’s being super-human.”
Dukes said stripping Taylor of nuance by expecting her to be either good or bad ends up dehumanizing her — the same treatment other Black victims of police violence often receive. And to Dukes, it doesn’t matter whether people think Taylor was good or bad. What matters is justice.