Officials spar over Breonna Taylor case: ‘Let people see’ evidence

With protests flaring in his state and nationwide and some turning violent overnight, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear on Thursday affirmed his call for state Attorney General Daniel Cameron to release evidence in the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor after a grand jury declined to directly charge the officers involved.

“It’s time to post all the information,” Beshear, a Democrat, said on MSNBC. “All the facts, all the interviews, all the evidence, all the ballistics, to truly let people look at the information.”

“One of the problems we’ve had over the last six months is a total lack of explanation and information,” he added. “And the vacuum that’s created there — our emotions, frustrations — can truly fill that. It’s time for people … to be able to come to their own conclusions about justice.”

During Cameron’s announcement Wednesday that a grand jury had chosen to charge only a single officer in the police raid that led to the death of Taylor, a Black woman killed in March inside her Louisville apartment, the attorney general said he wasn’t ready to release evidence because of a pending trial as well as an ongoing FBI investigation.

“At this point, I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Cameron, a Republican, said.

That prompted Beshear, a lawyer who previously served as state attorney general, to later challenge his successor’s restraint.

“I believe that any information that does not jeopardize the attorney general’s case or the FBI case should now be open for the public to see,” the governor said at a separate news conference Wednesday.

“Those that are currently feeling frustration, feeling hurt, they deserve to know more,” Beshear added.

The death of Taylor, 26, an emergency medical technician, set off protests against police brutality and became emblematic of how many Black Americans say that their lives are devalued by law enforcement and that they don’t feel safe even in their own homes.

Police had targeted Taylor’s home as part of a narcotics investigation linked to a suspect, her ex-boyfriend, who didn’t 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 that he believed the raid was a home invasion.

In a hail of gunfire from police, Taylor was struck six times, Cameron revealed Wednesday. The officer indicted by the grand jury, Detective Brett Hankison, was fired from the Louisville police force in June and faces three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment. He is accused of firing blindly into several apartments and recklessly endangering the lives of Taylor’s neighbors.

The public dispute between Beshear and Cameron has only amplified in recent weeks, with their offices currently sparring in court over the governor’s mask mandate related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Beshear on MSNBC pointed out that Cameron had no issue explaining to reporters on Wednesday how the ballistics analyses from state police and the FBI were different, a central part in determining which officer fired the fatal shot.

“I did appreciate him describing two ballistics reports in detail,” Beshear said. “Well, since they’ve been described, let people see them and let people read them.”

But as much as Beshear may want Cameron to release evidence and other information, grand jury proceedings are deliberately secretive, so the attorney general has the discretion as to what to withhold, said Cortney Lollar, a criminal law professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law.

“Arguably, at least as a general principle, he should err on the side of nondisclosure under the rules regarding grand jury secrecy,” Lollar said. “Otherwise, the AG’s office would face pressure to publish information from every grand jury proceeding, undermining the various purposes of the secrecy rule.”

State laws vary on the release of information from grand jury indictments. In California, grand jury transcripts are public record, but only if an indictment is obtained.

In Missouri, despite a longstanding tradition of not releasing grand jury evidence, the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson was of such high public interest that the St. Louis County prosecutor released thousands of pages of grand jury documents and evidence after announcing that the officer involved, Darren Wilson, had not been indicted.

In Kentucky, a lawsuit could be brought to try to compel a court to order that information from grand jury proceedings be disclosed publicly “if the court found it in the interests of justice,” Lollar said.

But, “to my knowledge, a court has never granted disclosure under that exception, but the public interest in this case might be significant enough,” she added.

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Cameron was also asked Wednesday whether he would release the racial and gender makeup of the grand jury — demographics that some observers say can help shed light on how jurors came to their decision. But, he responded, he didn’t want to inadvertently risk anyone’s identity.

Lollar, however, said that Cameron could “disclose that information without violating either the spirit or letter of the law.”

Samuel Marcosson, a law professor at the University of Louisville, said it’s not unheard of for prosecutors to want to release information publicly to “create the impression that their case is strong” and influence a potential jury pool.

“It is often the safest and best practice simply to wait to disclose any evidence until trial,” Marcosson added. “All that said, in a situation like this, where public confidence in the decisions made by the attorney general and the grand jury is so critical, a strong case can be made that full disclosure of the evidence serves a broader public interest.”