The death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman fatally shot by Louisville police in March, thrust Kentucky’s top prosecutor, Daniel Cameron, onto a national stage just a few months after he took office.
In May, when the Louisville Metro Police Department turned over its files to Cameron as independent special prosecutor, scrutiny immediately began over how the untested attorney general would handle such a high-profile incident, and after months of public outcry to “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor,” whether he could satisfy a community cleaved by racial unrest and accusations of police brutality.
He ultimately brought the criminal case before a grand jury this week.
But the grand jury’s decision on Wednesday afternoon to bring no direct charges against officers for Taylor’s killing ignited resentment, disappointment and a wave of criticism against Cameron, the state’s first Black attorney general, as he tried to tamp down the outrage and what he referred to as “mob justice.”
“People are not happy at this point,” Dewey Clayton, a University of Louisville political science professor, said. “There’s a lot of anger and frustration and sadness. People feel like they have not gotten justice.”
Based on evidence that Cameron’s office presented to the grand jury, those jurors chose to only indict a single officer involved in the police raid that led to the death of Taylor, who was killed inside her Louisville apartment. The officer, Sgt. Brett Hankison, was fired in June and now faces three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment for allegedly firing blindly into several apartments and recklessly endangering the lives of Taylor’s neighbors.
“Justice is not often easy,” Cameron said during a news conference in the state capital of Frankfort to explain the grand jury’s decision. “It does not fit the mold of public opinion, and it does not conform to shifting standards.”
Police had targeted the home as part of a narcotics investigation linked to a suspect, Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, who did not live at the apartment. When officers burst through the door around 12:30 a.m. on March 13, Taylor’s current boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired once, injuring an officer in the leg, police said. Walker, who had a license to carry firearms, told investigators he believed it was a home invasion.
Officers fired more than 20 shots in a matter of seconds, Cameron said Wednesday, and Taylor was struck six times. He added that police announced themselves when they knocked on the door, disputing The New York Times’ reporting that almost a dozen neighbors interviewed said they never heard police calling out. Although Taylor, 26, was not the subject of the search warrant and was killed, officers who took part in the raid were ultimately “justified in their use of force,” the attorney general said.
“I know that not everyone will be satisfied with the charges announced today,” Cameron said before railing against celebrities, influencers and activists, specifically those outside of Kentucky, who “will try to tell us how to feel, suggesting they understand the facts of this case, that they know our community and the Commonwealth better than we do — but they don’t.”
Actor George Clooney, a Kentucky native, released a statement Wednesday, saying he was “ashamed of this decision.”
“I was born and raised in Kentucky. Cut tobacco on the farms of Kentucky. Both my parents and my sister live in Kentucky. I own a home in Kentucky, and I was there last month,” Clooney said. “The justice system I was raised to believe in holds people responsible for their actions. Her name was Breonna Taylor and she was shot to death in her bed by 3 white police officers, who will not be charged with any crime for her death.
“I know the community. I know the commonwealth. And I was taught in the schools and churches of Kentucky what is right and what is wrong. I’m ashamed of this decision.”
In a news conference Wednesday, President Donald Trump called Cameron “a star” and read Cameron’s statement about “justice is not easy.”
“Really brilliant Kentucky attorney general, Daniel Cameron, very fantastic job,” Trump said. “I think he is a star. … I heard that, I said write that down for me, please, because I think it was a terrific statement. He’s handling it very well, you know who he is, I think everyone now knows who he is.”
Brian Butler, a former assistant U.S. attorney and now-criminal defense attorney in Louisville, said Cameron had the unenviable task of taking over a complicated case that became emblematic of how Black Americans say their lives are disregarded by law enforcement.
Pleasing what many in the community may want isn’t easy for prosecutors who have to work with the evidence that’s available, he added.
“So often what is in the public sphere isn’t anywhere close to what is the evidence in an actual case,” Butler said.
Unlike other states, such as Missouri, where prosecutors have discretion on filing criminal charges in a case, Kentucky requires impaneling a grand jury to bring felony charges against a defendant, he said.
“There’s always room for debate if what the grand jury decides was right,” Butler added. “But I think the most important thing is the perception that the process was fair and the information was presented in the most objective way possible. For any good prosecutor, you’ll want people to feel like it was a fair process.”
Cameron on Wednesday declined to discuss certain details of the case, saying he did not want to compromise the investigation nor the pending trial against Hankison.
He also said that while his “heart breaks for the loss” of Taylor, “criminal law is not meant to respond to every sorrow and grief.”
He added that homicide charges against the officers, including the one who fired the fatal shot, “are not applicable to the facts before us.”
The attention on Cameron, the first Republican in 70 years to serve as Kentucky’s attorney general, has only grown in recent weeks after he spoke at the Republican National Convention, addressing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden directly that “you can’t tell me how to vote because of the color of my skin.”
President Donald Trump also recently named Cameron to a list of people he could nominate to the Supreme Court if he wins a second term.
Cameron, 34, has been a protégé of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and he defeated his Democratic challenger with nearly 58 percent of the vote.
His handling of the Taylor case could cement his future as a “rising star” in the Republican Party and catapult him to higher political office, Clayton said.
“If he can convince people and make the argument that ‘it wasn’t up to me what happened, but was in the grand jury’s hands,’ he can mollify any criticism,” Clayton said.
“He’s so young and so early in his career, he doesn’t have a real track record,” he added.
For a brief moment during his news conference, Cameron became emotional when he addressed the spotlight on him during a time of national reckoning over systemic racism and the deaths of Black people in police encounters.
“I understand that as a Black man, how painful this is … which is why it was so incredibly important to make sure that we did everything we possibly could to uncover every fact,” he said.
He added that it was difficult for him to tell Taylor’s family what the grand jury had decided, and he considered his own mother’s pain if she were to get a call about him.
“My mother, if something was to happen to me,” he said as he appeared to choke back tears, “would find it very hard.”