Lawyers Critique The Prosecution’s Handling Of The Hankison Trial

Over the course of the four days it spent making its case, the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office argued in court that former LMPD detective Brett Hankison should be found guilty of wanton endangerment for shots he fired during the raid on Breonna Taylor’s apartment that entered the home of her next door neighbors. 

From the outset, prosecutors said that the trial was not about Taylor’s death, nor was it about police reforms or the warrant that landed LMPD at 3003 Springfield Drive on March 13, 2020. But that did not stop them from going through the events leading up to the raid — from the warrant to the briefings to whether officers knocked on Taylor’s door or not — in painstaking detail that took up hour upon hour. 

Even though the defense said that Hankison fired the shots that he was accused of firing and that they would not contest those shots, the prosecution went through exhaustive testimony on ballistics.

At points during the prosecution’s case, one juror appeared to be nodding off.

Ahead of the jury’s deliberations, jurors were told by the court that they should be prepared to stay late on March 3, the day deliberations were set to begin. Instead, they got out earlier than they had during four days of the prosecution’s case, spending just three hours to return a verdict that Hankison was not guilty on all three counts of wanton endangerment.

After the verdict, LEO spoke to several attorneys about how the trial played out. 

To attorney Sam Aguiar, who represents Breonna Taylor’s family, the prosecution’s performance during the trial was a “song and dance” reminiscent of how the Attorney General’s Office handled issuing charges related to the Taylor raid in 2020.

“We have the same team prosecuting Hankison that had essentially exonerated the others and not really let it go to a grand jury. So part of the reason why that bothers me is because you’ve got this team that’s got to be real careful in the way they prosecute this case because they’ve essentially got to make sure they’re not doing something that compromises what they concluded in their investigation of the case that led to the grand jury debacle,” he said. “So you’ve got this inevitable conflict they’ve created before the case even gets to a jury.”

(In 2020, several grand jurors publicly came forward to say that they were limited in scope in considering charges for police officers involved in the raid on Taylor’s apartment. Speaking to the Associated Press last year, Attorney General Daniel Cameron said, “The prosecutors made a recommendation to the grand jury and those members ultimately decided to pursue that particular recommendation and indict one of the officers.”)

Hankison was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment in the first degree, with each count carrying up to five years in prison. The charges were not for Taylor’s death, but for shots he fired that passed through a wall into an apartment next to Taylor’s home where three people were present. Nobody has been charged in Taylor’s death. While two other officers discharged their weapons during the raid, Hankison was the only officer to face charges.

During the trial, most of the witnesses called were from LMPD. The only witnesses to testify who were at the apartment building that night — and were not police — were the couple whose home was struck by Hankison’s shots and Aaron Sarpee, who was picking up his daughter from a babysitter who lived in the apartment above Taylor’s home at the time of the raid. 

Speaking to LEO after the verdict came in on March 3, Frederick Moore, an attorney representing Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker in suits against the city and police, said the prosecution did not reach out to have Walker testify. 

“That obviously was the first in a series of bizarre strategy choices that the Attorney General’s Office used in this case,” he said. “So the verdict isn’t shocking given those strategy decisions that they made.”

Attorney Kevin Glogower said having Walker testify could have potentially “made things a lot murkier for the jury,” leading them to conflate the trial they were ruling on with the killing of Breonna Taylor. However, he added that the decision was interesting given that the prosecution devoted large amounts of time to events leading up to the raid on Taylor’s apartment, which likely proved confusing.

“It seems like they spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the briefing and what led up to their arrival to the scene when, in reality, this was only a case about whether or not detective Hankison wantonly endangered anybody when he fired those shots,” said Glogower. “This trial had nothing to do with why they were there. It could have confused the jury. It could have bored the jury. It could have made it difficult for them to keep sight of what they were doing.”

(Glogower represented grand jurors who spoke out against the Attorney General’s Office’s charging procedure in 2020.)

At one point in the trial, prosecutors played a taped deposition of former detective Myles Cosgrove that lasted more than two hours and largely focused on the procedures, preparations and briefings ahead of the raid on Taylor’s apartment.

At other points, they heard from multiple ballistics experts who all spoke at length about where Hankison’s shots went, despite the defense saying that Hankison fired the shots he was accused of firing and that the case was instead about why he fired those shots.

The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment. Exiting the courtroom after the not guilty verdict on March 3, prosecutor Barbara Whaley said, “We respect this jury’s verdict.”

Aguiar, the attorney for Taylor’s family, was also blistering in his criticism of how the prosecution used its time.

“There’s a playbook when you go to jury trial: You’ve got to tell a story. Jurors have short attention spans. You want to make sure that it’s compelling, you want to make sure that each fact helps accomplish an objective towards establishing your case,” he said. “And here it was like, ‘Let’s just throw a bunch of things at the wall and hope it sticks.’”

Attorney Jeff Sexton, who represents the couple whose apartment Hankison’s bullets struck during the raid, was less critical of the prosecution, blaming the not guilty verdict instead on the weight of Breonna Taylor’s death in the courtroom.

“They played the cards that they had been dealt. While on their face they looked like they were really good cards, it was a rigged game,” he said. “It was a rigged game from the start with Breonna Taylor’s family in that courtroom and the constant presence of her ghost hanging over the proceedings.”

Sexton said the presence of Taylor’s family and their supporters in the courtroom “took the focus off of the true facts that were under adjudication, which was the wanton endangerment of three people in their apartment after midnight, and just brought the specter of Breonna Taylor over the whole proceeding. Which, I would tell you — broadly speaking — was prejudicial towards the Commonwealth’s case and incredibly helpful towards Hankison.”

Instead of carefully considering the evidence, the jury instead chose to rebuke those who were calling for Hankison’s “head on a platter,” he said.

Had the trial been moved — as, ironically, the defense had requested — Sexton believes the outcome would have been different.

Brian Butler, a former prosecutor who is now a defense attorney, said the argument made by the prosecution in this case was hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

“I think it was a tough case from a prosecutor standpoint because everyone in the trial agreed that police were fired upon first and returned fire,” he said. “In that type of situation, it would be very difficult I think to convince 12 people that an officer had committed a crime after an officer was shot under the theory that those shots were errant.”

Aguiar, the Taylor family attorney, said he had worried that the trial might result in a hung jury, but that he did not anticipate a quickly-returned not guilty verdict.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that 12 unbiased individuals could get into a room, hear this case — even if it was presented very poorly by the prosecution — and unanimously agree in a couple of hours that this wasn’t wanton endangerment,” he said. 

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