By Jamie L. Freedman
The GW Law community gathered virtually on Oct. 2 for a robust discussion on the grand jury investigation into the killing of Breonna Taylor. Hosted by The Criminal Law & Policy Initiative, the timely event featured criminal law professors Roger A. Fairfax, Jr. and Kate Weisburd, who shared insights on the high-profile case that sparked nationwide protests.
The conversation centered on the grand jury investigation into the March 13 killing of the 26-year old emergency room technician at her Louisville, Ky., home during a botched police drug raid. Ms. Taylor was shot six times by police officers, who broke down her front door with a battering ram while executing a no-knock warrant. GW Law’s well-attended virtual event took place on the same day that Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron released the audio recordings of the case’s grand jury proceedings following a court order—an unusual move in response to public outrage following the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officers in the killing of Breonna Taylor.
Professor Weisburd kicked off the discussion with a bird’s eye view of the case and shared her perspective on the search warrant and its execution. “Breonna Taylor had no history of a criminal record, violence, or resisting the police so there was no reasonable basis for a no-knock warrant in this case,” she stated. Ms. Taylor, she continued, was only mentioned once in the search warrant pertaining to a package sent to her apartment in January for her ex-boyfriend, who had since moved away. Moreover, she said it was not clear why the police executed the order in the middle of the night, why aid was not rendered to Ms. Taylor for the first 20 minutes after the shooting, and why the ambulance was sent away.
“There are two ways of viewing what happened that night,” she said. “Either the police acted illegally in violation of the 4th Amendment in obtaining and executing the warrant or the police acted legally and within the law. And this second view is perhaps the most troubling because it means that the law sees nothing wrong with the killing of an innocent black woman in the middle of the night.”
“These conversations are long overdue,” she continued. “The killing of Breonna Taylor exhibits the immense gap between what is legal and what is just, and there will be no real change until there is a reckoning with racial justice in this country.”
Turning to the grand jury’s Sept. 23 decision not to indict the police officers who shot Ms. Taylor, Professor Fairfax underscored that grand juries rarely decide there is not probable cause to go to trial. “Grand juries have a reputation for almost always approving indictments of prosecutors,” stated Professor Fairfax, a former federal prosecutor and nationally recognized expert on grand jury investigations whose scholarship focuses on the mechanisms available to regulate and hold police officers accountable for unjustified killings in the United States.
“A lot of people were understandably skeptical of the decision given the fact that the months-long investigation resulted in charges against only one officer--not for shooting Breonna but for wanton endangerment for shooting into a neighboring apartment,” he said. Emphasizing that it is exceedingly rare for the grand jury secrecy veil to be lifted, he added, “The sustained outcries and protests around the country were so loud the system could not ignore it.”
Directly addressing the many students on the call, Professor Fairfax stated, “The silver lining of all of this is that you’re in law school and training to be able to make a difference. Seek to make changes to prevent these tragedies from occurring in the future. Keep saying Breonna’s name and keep her name alive as a reminder of all the work we still have to do.”