The high-profile criminal trial of former Louisville police officer Brett Hankison, who was involved in the fatal raid on Breonna Taylor’s apartment, will start on Tuesday.
Hankison was one of seven officers involved in the middle-of-the-night search in March 2020, and one of three who fired their guns. The raid was connected to an investigation into a suspected drug dealer, Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, who lived miles away.
A grand jury indicted Hankison on three counts of felony wanton endangerment for “extreme indifference to human life” because some of his bullets struck a neighboring apartment that night. Hankison and other officers were returning fire after Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired one shot at police. Walker later said he thought they were intruders.
Hankison’s charges are not directly related to Taylor’s killing, but he is the only officer involved in the raid to be criminally charged for his actions that night.
The trial starts after jury selection
More than 200 potential jurors arrived at the downtown Louisville courthouse earlier this month to fill out a written questionnaire. Lawyers followed up on jurors’ responses to during individual questioning sessions that went on for more than a week.
Prosecutors and Hankison’s defense attorney wanted to hear from potential jurors on their views of the Louisville Metro Police Department, whether the department discriminates against minorities, and jurors’ own past interactions with cops. And even though Taylor’s killing isn’t at issue in this trial, attorneys also wanted to know how potential jurors felt about what happened that night and what they saw in the news and on social media.
The individual questioning ended on Feb. 11 with 48 jurors certified and asked to return for the start of the trial.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” said Hankison’s attorney, Stew Mathews, about how quickly lawyers were able to agree on the group of jurors.
Mathews, who is based in Cincinnati, told WFPL News last month that he feared the avalanche of bad publicity and the months-long racial justice protests in 2020 would taint any jury pool.
“I think everyone in Jefferson County and beyond is aware of this case, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most people haven’t formed an opinion one way or the other,” he said.
Mathews had requested to move the trial out of Louisville twice before juror questioning even began. Both times, Circuit Court Judge Ann Bailey Smith denied the request but left open the possibility of considering a change of venue if finding impartial jurors became too difficult.
In an interview with WFPL News last week, Mathews said he will likely raise the issue again but it’s just for the court record in case there’s an appeal.
“It’s obvious that we are going to have us a jury,” Mathews said.
When potential jurors return to the courthouse on Tuesday, they’ll be questioned about potential biases again. This time it will be in a group setting.
Lawyers hope to whittle the pool of 48 people down to a final 15: 12 jurors and 3 alternates.
The full trial could take weeks
The trial will start in earnest immediately after prosecutors and Hankison’s attorney are able to agree on the final jury. The trial will include oral arguments, calling witnesses and presenting evidence.
It’s unclear how long the trial will last, but prosecutors with the Kentucky Attorney General’s office plan to call as many as 30 witnesses, according to court filings. That includes retired LMPD Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly and former Det. Myles Cosgrove, the two other officers who fired their weapons that night.
Hankison is expected to testify on his own behalf, according to a witness list his lawyer submitted to the court last December. Other LMPD officers who were present at the raid on Taylor’s apartment will also testify witnesses: Mike Nobles, Anthony James, Michael Campbell and Shawn Hoover. LMPD’s firearms training supervisor, Lt. Steve Lacefield, is also likely to take the stand.
Jurors are expected to visit the Springfield Drive apartment complex where Taylor lived. That’s likely to occur early on in the trial, according to Mathews.
“I think it’s critical that people see spaces and distances,” he said. “When you see it with your very own eyes, it’s different than looking at a photograph.”
In order to convict Hankison on the charges of felony wanton endangerment, prosecutors will have to prove that the former officer showed an “extreme indifference to the value of human life” when he fired his weapon that night. They’ll also have to prove, according to the Kentucky Penal Code, that Hankison consciously disregarded the “substantial and unjustifiable risk” to Taylor’s neighbors when he fired his gun, and his conduct was “a gross deviation” from what a reasonable person would do.
In Hankison’s termination letter, the Louisville Metro Police Department accused him of “blindly firing” ten rounds in the direction of Taylor’s covered patio door and window. Hankison disputes that characterization.
What are people saying about the trial?
Many of the people who protested in the wake of Taylor’s killing do not believe this trial will provide justice for her death.
Ben Crump, a national civil rights attorney who represented Taylor’s mother in her lawsuit against the city, said in a statement last month that the upcoming trial will be a reminder of “the inconceivable lack of justice.”
“These charges of wanton endangerment should be the lowest among many to result from that tragic night, not the highest and sole among them,” Crump said. “The lack of justice for Breonna Taylor is a blight on our nation’s criminal justice system.”
The last time Mayor Greg Fischer spoke about the case was in July of 2020 when he announced LMPD was planning to fire Hankison.
“Unfortunately, due to a provision in state law that I very much would like to see changed, both the Chief and I are precluded from talking about what brought us to this moment, or even the timing of this decision,” he said at the time.
Kentucky Attorney General David Cameron, whose office is prosecuting the case, has likewise remained tight-lipped.
It’s unclear whether activists have planned any protests or demonstrations during Hankison’s trial.
Cara Tobe, a member of the police accountability group the 490 Project, was one of the thousands of Louisville residents who marched for justice during the 2020 protests. She recently told the Washington Post that she has little interest in the Hankison trial.
“There has not been justice for Breonna Taylor,” Tobe said.