Brett Hankison is not on trial for killing Breonna Taylor, a prosecutor made clear in opening statements Wednesday – nearly two years after her death.
The former police officer is facing charges because, during a botched 2020 narcotics raid on the 26-year-old’s Louisville, Kentucky, apartment, he fired 10 shots – allegedly blindly – endangering a man, woman and child in a neighboring unit, Kentucky Assistant Attorney General Barbara Whaley said.
“Breonna Taylor should not have died that night,” the prosecutor said. “The city of Louisville in a civil matter … paid millions of dollars to Breonna Taylor’s family, but the money did not bring her back. Nothing will.”
No one was charged in Taylor’s death. Hankison, who is expected to take the stand in his own defense, faces three counts of felony wanton endangerment. He has pleaded not guilty.
The defense, in opening, said the veteran officer responded appropriately during a chaotic situation that he saw as a threat to himself and others.
The first day of testimony concluded with an officer in the police department’s public integrity unit describing the investigation and showing jurors photos of the scene – including one of Taylor’s lifeless body in shadows at the end of a hallway.
Sgt. Jason Vance recalled the “very hard conversation” he had with Taylor’s mother outside the apartment, telling her “there was no doubt” the woman was dead inside. He said he offered to connect the family with a department chaplain.
Judge Ann Bailey Smith told jurors they will visit the apartment complex Friday afternoon.
Earlier Wednesday, Whaley said the trial isn’t about the validity of the search warrant. Nor is it about whether the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department needs reform or more support. It’s about the three people who came dangerously close to being shot when Hankison fired into Taylor’s home, she said.
“You will hear that he shot into the apartment building,” Whaley said, “and you will hear that his bullets went through Apartment 4 into Apartment 3 and nearly hit Cody Etherton as he was walking down the hallway into the dining room of his apartment to see what was going on with the banging.
“This case is about Cody and his partner Chelsea (Napper), who was 7 months pregnant at the time, and their 5-year-old son, who was sleeping in the bedroom closest to the front door when the bullets ripped through the apartment and out their sliding glass door, into the night,” the prosecutor said.
The officers knocked repeatedly for minutes, and then breached the door with a “ram” when there was no response. Hankison, at the time, was telling a neighbor just upstairs to get back into his apartment when shots came from inside Taylor’s apartment, Whaley outlined.
When Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly was hit, Hankison started shooting perpendicular to where the shots were coming, according to Whaley.
A bullet “whizzed” by Etherton’s head in the next-door apartment, the prosecutor said.
After the shooting, Hankison told investigators he made the decision open fire because saw somebody with an “AR rifle” in Taylor’s apartment. Whaley said only a Glock pistol was found inside.
In his opening, defense lawyer Stew Mathews said the “case is not about the death of Breonna Taylor, but in a sense it’s totally about that – because that’s what started this whole situation.”
The scene, he said, was an “unbelievable, chaotic situation.”
Mathews said Hankison did what he was trained to do: Shoot until the threat was stopped. “He was justified,” the defense lawyer said. He said officers “had no idea what they were getting into.”
Mathews said there is no evidence of whether there was an AR-15 in the apartment, but suggested there may have been.
Jurors, after hearing all the evidence, will find Hankison’s actions were “logical, reasonable, justified and made total sense,” Mathews said.
Hankison opened fire in an attempt to “defend and save the lives of his brother officers who were still caught in what they call the fatal funnel in that doorway,” the defense lawyer said.
Neighbor testifies gunfire ‘nearly’ killed him
Etherson, 29, the state’s first witness, said he was awakened by the loud boom of the ram used to breach Taylor’s door.
Outside his room, he heard gunfire erupt and then remembered pieces of flying drywall and debris hitting him as he got down on the floor. The burst of gunfire, he told jurors, was followed by silence before he heard officers announce themselves and urge someone to get on the ground.
“One or two more inches and I would have been shot,” Etherton testified, adding the gunfire “nearly” killed him.
The son of Etherton’s pregnant partner was asleep in a room about seven feet from where a bullet pierced a wall, he testified.
After the shooting stopped, Etherton said he left the apartment briefly and saw his neighbor’s door broken down. He heard someone in the apartment say, “Breathe, baby. Breathe,” before police ordered him back inside.
During cross-examination, Etherton testified he did not hear any voices until the gunfire, and he was unsure how many times police rammed the door. He described the situation as “chaotic.”
Etherton has filed a lawsuit against Hankison, other officers, and the city of Louisville for $12 million, though he testified he did not know the amount.
Louisville Police Sgt. Kyle Meany, testifying for the prosecution, told jurors the search warrant was issued as part of an investigation of a man who was “fairly high up” in the leadership of a local drug operation. Though the warrant was issued as a “no knock,” he said, it was to be administered as a “knock and announce.” Meany said. Hankison, with his drug sniffing dog Franklin, had volunteered to help with the raids at several locations.
Another officer, Sgt. Mike Nobles, told jurors he was on the right side of the door to Taylor’s apartment. Mattingly was on the left side, with Detective Myles Cosgrove in the middle. He said officers knocked four or five times and announced themselves before he rammed the door three times.
“As soon as it opened, Sgt. Mattingly took half a step inside … and he started yelling ‘No, no, no,’ and took a shot to the groin. He stepped back and started to fire,” Nobles testified, adding events unfolded so rapidly he had no time to draw his weapon.
Mattingly fired first, then Cosgrove fired, according to Nobles. At one point, Nobles said, he heard someone say “long gun” and tried to take shelter under the stairs.
The officers administered first aid before taking Mattingly to an ambulance, the sergeant testified. The difference between a knock-and-announce and a no-knock search warrant is only about 15 seconds, Nobles told the jury. But they waited two to three minutes before entering because the upstairs neighbor was yelling at them, he said.
Taylor’s mother feels her presence matters
Although the case is not about delivering justice to the Taylor family, Taylor’s mother said she will attend the trial.
“I just feel like my appearance should be seen and felt,” Tamika Palmer said.
Hankison’s bullets did not strike Taylor, whose death sparked a protest movement demanding police reform. Hankison is the only one charged in relation to the fatal raid.
The long-awaited trial, which was delayed because of a case backlog caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, could provide a measure of justice for the neighbors whose lives were put in danger – but not for Taylor and her supporters, according to her mother and the attorney for her family.
“The purpose of Tamika and family members going to the trial is … that Brett has to see, face to face, (that) – you impacted our family. You did something horrible. You need to be convicted. You need to go to prison,” Lonita Baker, the family attorney, told CNN. “But justice for the neighbors is not enough.”
Hankison will testify in his defense, attorney tells potential jurors
On March 12, 2020, a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge approved five search warrants for locations linked to Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, a convicted felon suspected of supplying a local drug house. One of those locations was Taylor’s residence.
Hankison and other officers executed the no-knock warrant at Taylor’s apartment in the early hours of March 13. Taylor was in bed with her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker III, when the officers battered down the front door.
The couple yelled to ask who was at the door but got no response, according to Walker. Thinking the officers were intruders, Walker grabbed a gun he legally owned and fired a shot.
That triggered a volley of fire from the officers. Taylor, who was standing in a hallway with Walker, was shot eight times. Walker was not injured.
“Somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend,” Walker said in a 911 call.
Walker was at first charged with attempted murder of a police officer and first-degree assault for shooting Cosgrove in the leg – but prosecutors later dropped the charges.
Hankison was fired in June 2020. Cosgrove was fired in January 2021 for use of deadly force for firing 16 rounds into Taylor’s home and failing to activate his body camera, according to a copy of his termination letter. Mattingly retired in April 2021.
Mattingly and Cosgrove were not indicted. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron has said they were justified in shooting in self-defense, because Taylor’s boyfriend fired first.
Taylor’s family and their attorney have maintained she was not involved in her ex-boyfriend’s alleged drug deals.
The state filed notice of its intent to present evidence of an October 2016 foot chase in which Hankison “drove his van … onto a sidewalk where he struck his fellow officer, causing serious injuries to the officer,” including a fractured spine. The department’s professional standards unit found Hankison “failed to drive with ‘due regard for the safety of all persons.’”
Each count carries a one- to five-year prison term, according to the indictment.
In Louisville, the shooting and its aftermath led to the passing of “Breonna’s Law” in June 2020, which bans such warrants and requires officers to wear and activate body cameras when carrying out search warrants.
In April 2021, the Kentucky state legislature passed a bill setting restrictions on no-knock warrants but did not outlaw them.
The city of Louisville agreed to pay a historic $12 million in a settlement with Taylor’s family in September 2020. It included an agreement for the city to introduce police reforms.
CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin, Theresa Waldrop and Linh Tran contributed to this report.