Criminal Justice Professor Questions Breonna Taylor Grand Jury Proceedings
By: Nick Santangelo
On March 13, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was tragically killed when plainclothes police officers entered her Louisville, Ky. apartment and shot her six times.
The officers entered her home with a “no-knock” search warrant in connection with a suspected drug dealer with whom Taylor had broken off a relationship the previous month. Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker and 11 eyewitnesses claim the police did not announce themselves before battering down the door. The officers and one other eyewitness claim they did. Walker, thinking it was a home invasion, fired a warning shot that struck one of the officers in the leg. The officers fired 32 shots in response, leaving Walker uninjured but killing Taylor.
Last month, Louisville settled a $12 million civil suit with Taylor’s family and agreed to reform police practices. Barely a week later, however, a state grand jury indicted only one of the officers involved for wanton endangerment. No officer was indicted for murder or manslaughter.
“The way these things go, I wasn't surprised,” says College of Liberal Arts Criminal Justice Associate Professor Cheryl Irons. “Maybe a little bit, because I saw the attorney general was a black man, but I didn't do any research into whom he actually was. So now that I know who he is, it's not surprising.”
Dr. Irons, a former prosecutor whose courses cover topics such as grand juries, explains that Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron was required by the state’s constitution to take the case before a grand jury to seek felony indictments.
The prosecutor doesn't have to disprove that it was self-defense in a grand jury hearing
From Dr. Irons’ viewpoint, grand juries are ineffective ways to address allegations of police brutality and unjustified uses of force resulting in deaths in high-profile cases. That’s because grand juries are held in secret and the prosecutors bringing these cases often work with the officers involved on a daily basis.
Dr. Irons argues that Cameron did not fulfill his duty as the state’s top prosecutor during the grand jury hearing. The conflict of interests with the state attorneys general prosecuting police officers who are essentially his colleagues, says the professor, may have caused Cameron to be too deferential to the officers when presenting evidence to the grand jury.
The prosecutor presents all the evidence and controls the narrative in a grand jury hearing, which is non-adversarial. There is no defense attorney present to cross-examine prosecutor witnesses, there is no judge or neutral arbitrator and the defendant has no right to present evidence.
“If you shoot somebody, if you claim you did it in self-defense, the prosecutor doesn't have to disprove that it was self-defense in a grand jury hearing,” explains Dr. Irons. “It is a trial issue and is an affirmative defense to be raised by the defense side.
“The attorney general claims that the officers had a valid claim of self-defense. Well, then that's their thing to bring up. You have no obligation to raise it for them at the grand jury. Typically, what they do in grand juries if the defendant is considered a ‘real criminal’ is go in and put on enough evidence to show that they have a reason, probable cause, to have arrested this person, and they have a sufficient evidence to move forward,” says Dr. Irons.
While the professor allows that the ensuing trial would be an entirely different matter, the overwhelming majority of grand juries indict defendants. That’s because, in addition to the absence of defendants at these hearings, prosecutors can present hearsay and control what is and isn’t presented to grand juries.
If students decide they want to get into policing, they're in a position to do something different
But now that the grand jury hearing has concluded the way it did, Dr. Irons isn’t optimistic that there will ever be a murder or manslaughter trial over Taylor’s killing. She notes that while the federal government is conducting its own investigation, federal charges seem unlikely given the current political climate.
And while voting in the already-underway 2020 election is one option for students who feel justice wasn’t done in this case, Dr. Irons also hopes her Criminal Justice students will use their educations to push for a more equitable criminal justice system.
“The police need to upgrade their training, that's for sure. And that's something that if students decide they want to get into policing, they're in a position to do something different. They could do better. I'm hoping I can train future leaders that are going to remember some of the discussions we had about the importance of community engagement and de-escalation in situations where low level interactions need not result in violent confrontation. And that they'll be in a position to make a change.
“That's all educators can do, basically, is give our students the information that they need to process these things and hope that they're in a position to make changes for the better.”