More than 150 days have now passed since the murder of Breonna Taylor in her Louisville, Kentucky, home, and the officers who shot and killed her remain free. Amid mass calls for justice, Oprah Magazine has even put up 26 billboards around Louisville calling for arrests to be made, but sadly, it may be a lot more complicated than it seems.
Taylor, 26, was killed on March 13, after she was struck by eight bullets as officers attempted to serve a no-knock warrant during a narcotics investigation. Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired his gun in self-defense, believing the officers were intruders, striking an officer in the leg. The officers returned fire, and Taylor was shot. No drugs were found in the home. Walker was also arrested and charged with attempted murder of a police officer for opening fire first. Those charges were dropped in May.
So why haven’t the officers been charged with a crime? According to The Marshall Project, it’s all because of the” castle doctrine,” a complex legal doctrine that applies in Taylor’s home state of Kentucky and 28 other states. The doctrine gives people the right to use deadly force against an intruder in their home, but according to Kentucky law, those protections do not allow someone to harm police officers who enter their home, as long as the officers announce themselves or the homeowner is blatantly aware that they’re police. There is no specific law that addresses an officer firing in self-defense, which means officers have the same right as the homeowner. The difference, though is, that police have the power to initiate violence—like barging in Taylor’s home in the middle of the night, that civilians do not. This is what initially gave officers grounds to arrest Walker.
“Most states don’t allow someone to claim self-defense when they are an aggressor,” said Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. “But most states also say that when police are acting in their official capacity, they can’t be aggressors for purposes of self-defense law.” So because the police are able to claim self-defense in this situation, just as Walker is, it’s difficult to name an aggressor and therefore bring charges upon them.
Colin Miller, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law researching the Kentucky criminal code on behalf of lawyers representing Taylor’s family, says he believes the officers can indeed be arrested—the type of charge is the tricky part. Miller says the probable cause needed for an arrest is “an exceedingly low bar” Adding, “If you have a shooting death, it’s going to be pretty difficult to argue you can’t at least charge some type of crime in that case, whether it be endangerment manslaughter or murder.”
A civil lawsuit filed by Taylor and Walker’s neighbor, claims that the officers fired more than 20 rounds into Taylor’s home. Images reveal several of the officers’ bullets also entered the neighbor’s home as well. The suit states that the officers began “spraying” bullets into the apartment complex “with a total disregard for the value of human life.” According to Miller, Kentucky law doesn’t extend protection to “wanton” behavior, meaning the officers would have known what they were doing was dangerous or harmful, but did it anyway and in a reckless manner. If a prosecutor could prove to a jury that the officers’ conduct that lead to Taylor’s death was wanton, “then that is murder under Kentucky law, and self-defense would not be a viable defense,” Miller explained.
However, Michael Mannheimer, a law professor at Northern Kentucky University, thinks that manslaughter, rather than wanton murder is a more realistic charge in this case. To indict someone on wanton murder charges, a prosecutor has to be able to prove a mindset of “depraved indifference, which can be a steep bar,” he said. “This is not very technical, but the best way to think of it is: manslaughter is when you’re reckless, and you kill someone. Depraved indifference is when you’re really, really reckless, and you kill someone.” An example of manslaughter could be striking and killing a pedestrian while speeding. Depraved indifference would be more like someone shooting into a large crowd at random, unprovoked, and killing someone. The sentence for the former is between five to ten years in prison, but anywhere from 20 years to life, up to the death penalty, for wanton murder.
Since Taylor’s death, only one officer, Brett Hankison, has been fired. The other two officers, Sergeant Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove have been temporarily taken off the street. In lieu of arrests, the Louisville city council banned no-knock raids last month, while Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has proposed a Senate bill that would ban no-knock warrants in federal law enforcement and strip funding from local police departments that did not follow suit; House Democrats have also approved a similar bill. Both bills are named after Breonna Taylor. Sadly, almost five months after her death, this is the only solace the justice system has deemed her family worthy of, thus far.