Every element of the criminal system is implicated in the failure to secure justice for Breonna Taylor. The cops, per the judge who signed off the warrant that set the events leading to Taylor’s murder in motion, likely obtained that paperwork using fabricated information. Shoddy police work saw Louisville law enforcement raid Taylor’s home despite the fact that the suspect they sought was already in their custody. The three officers who killed Taylor wildly fired more than 30 rounds between them into the darkness of her apartment, pumping at least six fatal shots into her body. They then ignored their own protocols, compromising the crime scene. And in the aftermath of Taylor’s killing, Commonwealth Attorney Tom Wine focused on posthumously smearing Taylor’s reputation by attempting to nail her as a “co-defendant” in a plea bargain deal.
And then there was Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s seemingly strategic effort to avoid indictments of any of the police officers involved in Taylor’s death. In presenting evidence to the grand jury who would decide whether to charge the officers, Cameron ignored multiple witnesses who countered the police’s contention that they announced themselves before executing a “no-knock” warrant—and ignored that the lone witness who confirmed that account had changed his original story. What’s more, after publicly stating that he had provided grand jurors with critical context for “every homicide offense, and also presented all of the information that was available,” Cameron later revealed “the only charge recommended was wanton endangerment.” Nonetheless, when he announced that charges would be filed against just one officer—not for Taylor’s murder, but for firing into the apartment of one of her neighbors—Cameron suggested it had been an open-and-shut case, since “the grand jury agreed” with his office that the cops “were justified in the return of deadly fire after having been fired upon.” Were it not for one juror’s umbrage at being used by the Attorney General “as a shield to deflect accountability and responsibility” for the lack of indictments, we would likely never have heard the grand jury tapes he reluctantly released Friday afternoon. And even those were edited to remove the instructions given to the jury and its deliberations, keeping the procedures quite intentionally murky.
“In our system, criminal justice isn’t the quest for revenge—it’s the quest for truth, evidence and facts, and the use of that truth as we fairly apply our laws,” Cameron stated at a press conference he held about the grand jury’s decision. “Do we really want the truth or do want a truth that fits our narrative?” It appears that Cameron, tacitly scolding the public for demanding police accountability even as he strategically omitted information to shield officers from that same accountability, wants a truth that fits his narrative and that treats Taylor’s death has been treated as a minor consequence of an inevitable series of events. Because of the focus on Taylor’s case, this seems shocking. But the other thing that should shock is how completely ordinary this situation is.
From start to finish, the actions of Cameron (and Wine, at the district level) have demonstrated the unchecked power of prosecutors and the ways that boundless power corrupts justice.
That near limitless control prosecutors exert decides nearly every aspect of criminal cases, starting with the decision of whether a criminal prosecution will proceed, and what charges will be brought. Prosecutors essentially determine the plea bargain offered—the means by which 90 percent of criminal cases are “resolved”—and reserve “all the negotiating power” in the deals that result. Judges officially set bail, but prosecutors make recommendations on the amount. Jury selection is partly determined at the prosecutor’s discretion. All this is particularly worrisome considering the fact that they often work closely with the police day-to-day, forming professional bonds that call into question prosecutorial impartiality. The saying about a district attorney being able to convince a jury to indict a ham sandwich goes out the window when police, ahem, are involved.
There’s so much about the Taylor case that should have raised concerns with the prosecutors involved—were they truly interested in justice?—and yet which they let fall by the wayside. According to the grand jury tapes, after battering their way into Taylor’s apparent and killing her in a hail of bullets, police didn’t even carry out the search they’d gotten the warrant for. One officer described being confronting by a “larger than normal” shadow of a person, which hews awfully close to the superhuman descriptions of black folks that police often use to justify the fears that led them to kill. Cameron asserted definitively to jurors that Walker had shot an officer, despite a ballistics report that cast doubt on that assumption. Cameron’s omissions, including presenting the possible offenses grand jurors could have levied against the cops, were obviously intentionally made because he thought the cops might face actual consequences. And he made himself into a safeguard against that outcome.
“I cannot fashion the facts in such a way to meet a narrative that in many ways had already been put out there before the facts had been put out there,” Cameron has said about his role in the Taylor case.
And yet, he seems to have undertaken a fairly lackadaisical effort at hiding the fact that that’s precisely what he did. Mitch McConnell’s former attorney, Donald Trump’s champion, and Kentucky’s first Black elected attorney general, Cameron’s handling of the Taylor case essentially has ensured his star will continue to rise in Republican circles. And that ascent is the result of a system that allows ambitious prosecutors to transparently serve anyone but the constituency that needs them most.