02:55 - Source: CNN
Trial begins for ex-officer charged in Breonna Taylor's raid
CNN  — 

Brett Hankison, the only officer charged in connection with the botched 2020 raid that left Breonna Taylor dead in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment, said he opened fire because colleagues were “sitting ducks” being “sprayed with bullets” from an AR-15 rifle.

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.

No one was charged with killing Taylor, whose death sparked a national protest movement demanding police reform. Hankison, who is expected to take the stand in his own defense, faces three counts of felony wanton endangerment. He has pleaded not guilty.

On Friday afternoon the jury will visit the apartment complex and units affected by gunfire the night of the raid.

Jurors on Thursday heard a nearly hourlong taped interview the former officer gave an investigator on March 25, 2020.

“I saw an immediate illumination of fire,” Hankison said of the moment after officers breached the door with a battering ram.

“What I saw at the time was a figure in a shooting stance. And it looked like he or she was holding an AR-15 rifle, or a long gun.”

Whaley, in opening statements on Wednesday, said only a Glock pistol was found inside the apartment.

Sgt. Jason Vance, who was with the police department’s public integrity unit, testified that no AR-15 casings or bullets were recovered – nor was there evidence of that type of weapon being fired.

Defense lawyer Stew Mathews said there was no evidence of an AR-15 in the apartment, but suggested in his opening that there may have been one.

Hankison told investigators his only option was to return fire after another officer was shot. His bullets did not strike Taylor.

“I was almost under the impression at the time they were all being sprayed with bullets,” he said in the interview.

“I kind of felt they were sitting ducks,” Hankison said at another point.

The officers knocked repeatedly 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 said in opening statements.

When Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly was hit, Hankison started shooting perpendicular to where the shots were coming from, according to Whaley.

Hankison, in his interview 12 days after Taylor was killed, said he retreated from the narrow breezeway outside the apartment door to the parking lot a few feet away.

“I don’t recall if I fired as I was going back, but I knew where we were at was the worst place we could be,” he said. “We were all kind of trapped in that common area.”

He grew emotional recalling Mattingly being shot. He described firing through a window.

“As soon as I returned fire through that window the threat stopped,” Hankison told investigators, adding that he believed the shooter was advancing toward the officers.

“And I felt pretty helpless, like there is no way we can challenge this guy with an assault rifle,” he said.

Jurors were later shown video from a camera mounted on the helmet of a Louisville Metro Police Department SWAT team member who responded after the shooting. The video showed Taylor’s body in the distance at the end of a hallway.

Sgt. Brandon Hogan testified that SWAT officers entered the apartment and confirmed there were no other threats. The video also showed Hankison entering the apartment and being asked to leave what was now a crime scene.

Hankison asked if any guns were visible, “like a long gun,” according to the video.

Jurors to visit shooting scene on Friday

On Wednesday, Whaley made clear to jurors that Hankison is not on trial for killing Taylor.

“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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Each count carries 1- to 5-year prison term

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.

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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.

Each count carries a one- to five-year prison term, according to the indictment.

CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin, Theresa Waldrop and Linh Tran contributed to this report.