Can Daniel Cameron Take a Hint?

Sep 21, 2020 at 4:16 pm
Breonna Taylor

Ben Crump gave Daniel Cameron a gift last Tuesday. Time will tell whether Cameron is smart enough or brave enough to take it. 

During the press conference announcing the city of Louisville’s $12 million settlement with the family of Breonna Taylor, Crump, the Taylor family’s lawyer, turned from discussion of the deal and the package of police reforms to address Attorney General Cameron. 

Crump noted that the settlement was only the first step, and the family wanted to see criminal charges filed against the three police officers who killed Taylor. “But it is now on Daniel Cameron and the attorney general of Kentucky’s office to bring charges, and at the very minimum second-degree manslaughter charges, because we want full justice for Breonna Taylor, not just partial justice.”

Second-degree manslaughter is less than what the protesters had originally called for but could be a provable charge in the hands of a skilled prosecutor. If such charges were filed against one of more of the defendants, they could reduce the anxiety that Louisville would, in the words of the most fevered commentators, “explode” into violence. 

This was the second gift that Cameron has received in this case.

When Officer Brett Hankison was fired for violating LMPD use of force regulations the firing letter by department’s interim chief, Robert Schroeder, accused him of “wantonly and blindly” firing an allegedly 10 rounds Taylor’s apartment, an act that gave rise to a “substantial danger of death and serious injury.

“I find your conduct a shock to the conscience,” Schroeder wrote. “I am alarmed and stunned you used deadly force in this fashion.”

The language clearly hinted at a violation of Kentucky’s wanton homicide statutes.

“Wanton” and “shock the conscience” are words lawyers use to describe actions that are so dangerously reckless that they go beyond civil negligence into criminal behavior. Sort of like firing off 10 rounds into a dark apartment and killing an innocent bystander. Kentucky law has two crimes that try to reach this kind of hard-to-tightly-define criminal conduct: wanton murder and wanton manslaughter (the second-degree manslaughter to which Crump presumably referred).

Wanton murder, KRS 507. 020(1)(b), occurs when a person engages in behavior that creates a “grave risk” of death and in doing so kills another person. Such acts are undertaken with a “conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk of killing others.” While much of the case law involves vehicular homicide, Kentucky’s high court found this charge appropriate in a case in which a man, apparently thinking he was in a spaghetti Western, fired a shotgun from his hip in the general direction of three men, killing one of them.

Second-degree manslaughter, commonly known as wanton manslaughter, KRS 570.040(1), doesn’t require the consciousness that one’s acts create a “grave risk” of death. It requires only that a wanton act results in a death. Moreover, wanton manslaughter can occur in circumstances in which the defendant is allegedly acting in self-defense, just highly recklessly. 

It goes without saying, that none of these charges have been applied in Kentucky to a police-involved shooting, but that’s because even attempting to hold police officers accountable is an extremely novel development in American law. 

Looking at the facts of the case as we know it, if Cameron decides to prefer charges, officer Hankison is the obvious target. Hankison has been disciplined for reckless conduct, accused at least three times of sexual assault including complaints pending from 2020 and sued for planting drugs on a man, and police records note that he has run up unusually high amounts of overtime.

In the clichéd metaphor of the barrel of good apples with one bad apple, Hankison is one wormy piece of fruit.

The ballistics evidence the FBI lab took so long to analyze likely sought to determine which of the spray of bullets could be traced to him and each of his colleagues, Officer Myles Cosgrove and Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, all of who discharged their weapons.

It is now up to Cameron to see the case in front of his face and decide whether to seek justice for Breonna, even if the case is a difficult one, or to take the seeming “safe” political decision to stand with the River City Fraternal Order of Police.

The latter choice would certainly cause anger and protests, but the fears of widespread rioting have probably been overblown.

Despite the LMPD claims that they were attacked by “medieval weapons” (I saw no trebuchets or archers, but whatever, dude), recent Metro Council hearings suggest the chaos in the early protests was at least as much the fault of the LMPD’s aggressive tactics as any acts by actual protesters. (Boogaloo Boys and Threepers excepted). This theory has been borne out by the relative calm since Mayor Greg Fischer ordered the LMPD to ease off from firing pepper balls and teargas at protesters — especially as the livestreams of citizen-reporters gave lie to the LMPD PR team’s daily inaccuracies.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences if Cameron blows this. Peaceful protesters won’t rest. Well-organized demonstrations of nonviolent civil disobedience like those Until Freedom have organized will continue in Louisville well into the future. 

The attorney general might have to get used to visitors in his front yard. 

Kurt X. Metzmeier, is the author of “Writing the Legal Record: Law Reporters in Nineteenth-Century Kentucky” (University Press of Kentucky, 2016). Although he is a law librarian at UofL, the opinions in this article are his own and not those of the university or any of its institutions.