By Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) -The trial of a white former Kentucky police officer charged with wanton endangerment during the 2020 shooting death of Breonna Taylor began on Wednesday, casting a spotlight on another case in the United States that sparked a summer of protests against racial injustice two years ago.
Detective Brett Hankison, 45, whose stray bullets hit a neighboring apartment in the city of Louisville during a botched execution of a search warrant in March 2020, was the only officer charged in the case.
Kentucky Assistant Attorney General Barbara Whaley reminded the jury in her opening argument on Wednesday that the case was not about Taylor. Rather, she said it concerned whether Hankison exhibited “extreme indifference to human life” when firing the bullets that endangered Taylor’s neighbors, shattered their glass patio door, and caused drywall to fall on one of them, Cody Etherton.
Etherton testified on Wednesday that he awoke that March night to a boom, then heard several shots and felt debris falling on him after he left his room.
When his glass patio door shattered, Etherton said he went to check it out, whereupon officers pointed guns at him and told him to put his hands out through the broken glass. “It was just reckless,” he said.
“There’s not going to be any dispute about the evidence,” said Hankison’s attorney, Stew Mathews, in his opening argument. “The issue is, what was the reasoning behind his firing those shots?”
The death of Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician who was unarmed, along with the killings of two Black men – George Floyd in Minneapolis and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia – captured international attention and sparked weeks of protests over police violence against Blacks and other minority groups.
Calls to ban no-knock warrants also intensified after the death of Taylor, who was not the subject of the search warrant.
Hankison’s trial in Jefferson County Circuit Court has failed to satisfy activists who believe police got off too easily after Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, the lead investigator, said police were justified in using deadly force.
The charge against Hankison, who pleaded not guilty, is a Class D felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Jury selection began on Feb. 3.
A grand jury cleared the two white officers who actually shot Taylor but found reason to charge Hankison for endangering neighbors in the adjacent apartment.
When police burst into Taylor’s home while serving a search warrant, her boyfriend Kenneth Walker, who was with her, fired one round from a 9 mm handgun that he was licensed to carry, wounding one officer in the leg.
Police responded by firing 32 rounds, hitting Taylor six times.
Hankison fired 10 of those shots from outside the apartment and through a sliding glass patio door that had the blinds drawn. Some of his shots pierced the wall and entered the next-door home occupied by a child, a pregnant woman and a man.
Hankison told a grand jury he opened fire once the shooting started. As he saw flashes light up the room, he said he mistakenly believed one of the occupants was holding an AR-15 or other long gun as his colleagues came under assault.
“I thought they were just being executed,” Hankison said of his fellow officers.
Instead, mostly what he heard was other police firing their weapons. Police Sergeant Jonathan Mattingly, who was wounded by Walker’s single shot, fired six times and Detective Myles Cosgrove fired 16 shots, the investigation found.
Police wanted to search the home in connection with a drug investigation in which Taylor’s ex-boyfriend was a suspect.
Taylor’s family won a $12 million wrongful death settlement from the city of Louisville.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Additional reporting by Julia Harte; Editing by Mark Porter and Bill Berkrot)