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Trial begins for a former officer charged in the raid that killed Breonna Taylor

Brett Hankison (left) exits the courtroom after the first day of jury selection in his trial on Feb. 8, in Louisville, Ky. Hankison is on trial for allegedly firing shots into the apartment next door to Breonna Taylor's the night she was killed.
Dylan Lovan
/
AP
Brett Hankison (left) exits the courtroom after the first day of jury selection in his trial on Feb. 8, in Louisville, Ky. Hankison is on trial for allegedly firing shots into the apartment next door to Breonna Taylor's the night she was killed.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Nearly two years after Breonna Taylor's shooting death by police, the only Kentucky officer facing criminal charges in the botched raid went on trial Wednesday for shooting into Taylor's neighbor's apartment.

Brett Hankison, now a former officer, fired 10 shots near a side door during the raid, but none hit Taylor. Prosecutors say the bullets endangered Taylor's neighbors — a couple and their child. Hankison is charged with three counts of wanton endangerment, a low-level felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Assistant Kentucky Attorney General Barbara Maines Whaley, in her opening statement, told jurors that the case is not about the killing of Taylor, for which the city of Louisville paid a settlement to the slain woman's family, an amount that won't bring her back. Nor, she said, is it about the decisions by police that led to the raid. She said the charges are focused on Hankinson's decision to fire blindly through Taylor's apartment, endangering her neighbors.

Before Taylor's door was breached, Hankison had argued with a neighbor, telling him to get back inside. "This escalated the situation," Whaley said. Then, once the shooting started, "He's shooting in a different direction than the other two detectives," she said.

Defense attorney says Brett Hankinson was trying to save other officers' lives

Defense attorney Stewart Mathews countered that Hankison was justified in what he did during a chaotic scene that lasted about 10 to 15 seconds from when Taylor's door was breached to when the shooting stopped.

"This 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," Mathews said. "Breonna Taylor was a peripheral part of this whole deal, but she was tied into it," and their no-knock warrant meant officers had been approved to go inside.

Once Taylor's boyfriend fired at the people breaking down her door and other officers fired back, Hankison "was attempting to defend and save the lives of his fellow officers who he thought were still caught in that fatal funnel inside that doorway," Mathews said, "as he was taught to do — he was taught to shoot until the threat is stopped."

A witness describes a chaotic scene

Cody Etherton was the first witness, describing how he and his pregnant girlfriend Chelsey Napper were jolted awake that night by the sound of Taylor's door being breached. Thinking someone was breaking down his door, he said he jumped out of bed to investigate, and narrowly escaped bullets that penetrated a wall they shared with Taylor's apartment.

"I pretty much knew it was gunfire going through the wall. I do remodeling for a living, so when drywall started hitting my face, I pretty much knew. I hit the floor and went back into the bedroom," he said. "I don't even remember how many shots I heard because it was so chaotic."

"Another one or two inches and I woulda gotten shot. I would have never gotten to meet my son," Etherton added.

Etherton said he went outside after the shooting stopped, looked through Taylor's open door and heard a man saying "breathe, baby, breathe." Police then ordered him back into his apartment, but he said he kept watching through his peephole and could see a Black man being arrested. Later, he said he and his girlfriend looked once more through Taylor's door, and saw a body covered in a white sheet.

On cross-examination, Etherton acknowledged that "the whole thing was chaotic."

"From the time I got woke up, hearing boom, to the gunfire coming through my apartment, nearly killing my girlfriend, yeah it was chaotic," he said.

Mathews also raised the $12 million civil suit Etherton and Napper have filed against the city and its police department, among others. "That's not influencing your testimony, the fact that you want to get some money out of this?" Mathews asked.

"Of course we want to be compensated, but Chelsey and I have never talked about how much money we want out of this," Etherton said.

Judge Ann Bailey Smith swore in 10 men and 5 women as jurors and alternates to hear the case. The court declined to release information about their race or ethnicity.

Hankison's jury was selected from a larger-than-normal pool because of the national publicity Taylor's case has attracted since the deadly raid on March 13, 2020. Taylor's name, along with George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery — Black men who died in encounters with police and white pursuers — became rallying cries during racial justice protests seen around the world in 2020.

The 12 jurors and three alternates are expected to tour Taylor's apartment and hear testimony from Hankison during the trial that's expected to take two weeks. Several other current and former police officers are expected to testify.

The 26-year-old Black woman worked as an emergency medical tech and was settling down for bed when Louisville officers with a narcotics warrant kicked in her door. They drew fire from Taylor's boyfriend, who thought an intruder was breaking in. Two officers at the door returned fire, killing Taylor. Neither one was charged in her death, though one of the officers was struck by a bullet in the leg. The city of Louisville settled her family's wrongful death lawsuit in September 2020 for $12 million.

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