On the eve of a Kentucky court releasing the audio recordings of secret grand jury testimony related to the decision not to charge three Louisville officers for the death of 26-year-old emergency room technician Breonna Taylor, the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) took an unflinching look at the case from a legal perspective during a special edition of Virtual Face to Face with Dr. Bruce Jarrell.
While questions continue to swirl around the case, the basic facts are well known. Just before 1 a.m. March 13, Louisville police under the authority of a knock and announce warrant battered down the door and entered Breonna Taylor’s apartment. They were looking for her ex-boyfriend and another man who they believed used the apartment to receive packages of drugs.
Fearing a home invasion, Taylor's then-boyfriend Kenneth Walker says he fired one warning shot. Police fired back 32 times. They missed Walker, but Taylor was hit five times and died soon after.
At a press conference announcing the actions of the grand jury, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said the two officers whose bullets did strike and kill Taylor were justified in firing under Kentucky law because Walker fired at them first. A third officer is charged with three counts of wanton endangerment for recklessly firing into Taylor's apartment from outside.
Buoyed by the legal expertise of University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law professors David Gray, JD, PhD, Jacob A. France Professor of Law; Michael Pinard, JD, Francis & Harriet Iglehart Professor of Law and co-director, Clinical Law Program; and Maneka Sinha, JD, assistant professor, UMB President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, led a thoughtful discussion about the legal implications of the case during a special edition of Face to Face.
Jarrell, who said he was concerned when he heard the “deeply disturbing” news that the grand jury had failed to criminally indict the three officers involved in Taylor’s death, vowed that he wanted to educate himself and the UMB community about the law.
The resulting conversation, titled "The Legal Lens of Social Justice: Breonna Taylor and Beyond," examined some of the broader social issues at play as well as the substantive and procedural law including no-knock warrants, the Fourth Amendment, and prosecutorial power, that led to Taylor’s death and the lack of an indictment.
Racial disparities in the justice system figured prominently in the discussion. Sinha, who was a supervising attorney at the District of Columbia Office of the Public Defender, is well aware of a double standard when it comes to dispensing justice to black and brown people. “If one of my clients, who have been predominantly people of color, was shot at a single time and responded with the type of gunfire that we saw in this case, I feel supremely confident that an indictment could have been returned with much greater charges than were in this case, and the prosecutors' choices play a role in that,” she noted.
Gray agreed, saying racism is ingrained in America’s criminal justice system, “It's no accident that we get these horrific disparate outcomes,” he said.
Pinard asked the 400 virtual attendees to put themselves in the shoes of Taylor’s boyfriend on the night of March 13. “Imagine being asleep at midnight and all of a sudden you have three people who bust in your door,” in plain clothes with guns, he said setting the scene.
“When we talk about these no-knock warrants,” continued Pinard, “we have to talk about the dangerous circumstances, and quite honestly, the predictable results. That’s why we’ve had so many tragedies with no-knock warrants.”
Heeding Jarrell’s call to determine what the UMB community can do to effect change, Gray encouraged attendees to reach out to lawmakers. “Your primary target should be your state representatives,” he said.
Sinha agreed, adding that grassroots advocacy is an important element of change. “We need to reimagine what law enforcement looks like in our communities,” she said. “Advocacy on the ground can drive how law enforcement approaches these questions.”
At the end of the hour, which included productive conversation and pointed questions from the audience, Pinard urged the UMB community to connect with local organizations working on criminal justice reform issues. “I would strongly suggest that you all reach out and meet some of the folks in the communities who are doing this work and see if there are ways you can help support them.”
Professors provided links to documents pertaining to the case and criminal justice reform:
To watch the entire program, click the link at the top of the page.