What About Breonna?

Or, How 3 Grand Jurors Ruined Attorney General Dan Cameron's Career (Hopefully)

“Oh thank Christ,” I exclaimed to the gas pump yesterday, drawing a glance from the man on the other side, also pumping gas. I hadn’t expected to be so tense, but I knew that there was a distinct possibility that Derek Chauvin would be acquitted. The possibilities for America that were contained within two words — not guilty — had me gritting my teeth all day.

So I was relieved when, through the earbud dangling from my ear, and amongst millions of others listening in on a trial miles and miles away, there was just one word at that crucial moment after the judge read “we the jury find the defendant.”

Strange thing, when you’re a defense-minded person who believes in prison abolition to be rooting for the prosecution. We’re going to punish Derek Chauvin for his violence by sending him to a violence factory.

It is the right outcome in a context where the other option would be worse. We can’t deliver justice to George Floyd or his family, because justice would mean that he would never have been murdered in the first place. Sending people who have done bad things to bad places is the most we can offer, and is amongst the precious few ways that our culture can signal that George Floyd’s life mattered. It’s meager, we need to work for something better, but it’s what we have right now.

I clicked off the news, got back into my car, and couldn’t stop thinking about Breonna Taylor.

Taylor, as most probably know, who was shot to death by Louisville police officers in her bedroom 73 days before George Floyd’s murder. She was turned into a meme, put on t-shirts, became a cause celebre, and will never receive even a chance at the meager justice that Floyd and his loved ones received. The only criminal charges that stemmed from Taylor’s killing was for one of the officers which was for not being a good enough shot. If former officer Brett Hankison had gotten all of his bullets into Breonna Taylor’s body — as opposed to the neighboring apartment — there would presumably be no charges at all.

This is thanks to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron and his (so far) successful attempt to help cover up what might otherwise be called a crime.

And, I got mad about it (again). So I decided to write about it.

While there are six possible homicide charges under Kentucky law, these charges are not applicable to the facts before us because our investigation show and the grand jury agreed that Mattingly and Cosgrove were justified in the return of deadly fire after having been fired upon by Kenneth Walker.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, lying, at a September 2020 press conference as he announced the results of the grand jury proceedings in Breonna Taylor’s killing. Emphasis mine.

Here’s a thing you need to know about grand juries: they aren’t regular juries. There’s not defense attorney, no defendant. Just regular citizens the prosecutor, and witnesses. Their proceedings aren’t open to the public. In fact, they’re generally secret. One of their chief roles is to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed to trial in a case. If so, they will issue an indictment. If not, they won’t. But grand juries usually do what prosecutors want them to do. At the federal level, they issue an indictment 99.99% of the time (though there are important differences between state and federal grand juries. State grand juries will issue indictments at lower rates). There is also the old canard about grand juries and ham sandwiches.

But, there is one type of case where — for inexplicable reasons — I have noticed that grand juries generally do not indict: police killings. Mike Brown. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Those names you’re all probably familiar with (though there are plenty you aren’t, such as Samantha Ramsey) and they all have at least one thing in common: grand juries that didn’t indict officers who killed them. They might have another thing in common: prosecutors who, intentionally or not, guide grand jurors to not issue an indictment. No indictment = no trial, but if the grand jury does it, the prosecutor doesn’t have to take a political hit for refusing to charge a defendant that the public wants charged.

It’s (mostly) speculative, because grand jury proceedings are secret. There are at least two notable cases that are exceptions to this general rule. One is Mike Brown’s killing, where when the grand jury proceedings were released it was revealed that prosecutors essentially acted as defense attorneys for Darren Wilson and incorrectly instructed the grand jurors on the law..

One other is Breonna Taylor.

Per the Kentucky Rules of Criminal Procedure, grand jury proceedings are secret (absent a court order). When KY AG Dan Cameron gave his press conference in September, announcing that the “grand jury agreed” that Breonna Taylor’s killing was justified, presumably he was aware of this rule — being the top elected law enforcement official in the state.

What Cameron probably wasn’t aware of is that amongst the grand jurors the case was presented to were at least three people who would be willing to go way out of their way to pick a fight with him for no reason other than their own personal sense of justice.

And that’s exactly what happened. The only reason we know Cameron lied about the grand jury proceedings is because they took it upon themselves to go out, get a lawyer, and fight Cameron in court to be able to speak publicly.

Contrary to Cameron’s representations that the grand jury agreed with him, "there was an uproar" in the grand jury room when jurors were told they would not be allowed to consider homicide charges against the officers who shot Breonna Taylor to death. They were told that prosecutors didn’t think they could secure a conviction.

Perhaps it is true that Cameron decided that no crime occurred — but that’s his decision, and to pawn it off on the grand jury is (a) cowardly and (b) a lie. It is (supposedly) the grand jury’s purview to decide whether a crime was committed, or whether there is enough evidence for trial. It is the role of the prosecutor to zealously represent the state in seeking an indictment. None of that happened in Breonna Taylor’s case.

As I said, perhaps it is true that no crime occurred. I don’t know, and no one does, because the usual process we use to determine that question was short circuited by a politician. This also just addresses the tip of a much larger iceberg: the NAACP LDF has done a fantastic writeup of the many other problems with the grand jury presentation.

What I do know is that Cameron used legal procedure and his role as Attorney General to deny Taylor and her family even the opportunity of the same meager justice that Floyd received yesterday. The same opportunity that would be afforded to you or I. Leave aside politics, or culture wars, or BLM — leave aside all of that, and what you think about any of that. None of that matters here. This is just a question about basic fairness.

In a just world, this should hang around Cameron’s neck for the rest of his career.

Fingers crossed that we live in that world.