LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Jury selection began this week for the trial of a former Kentucky police officer who took part in a botched raid that left Breonna Taylor dead. Brett Hankison is charged with three counts of wanton endangerment for allegedly firing wildly into the apartments of Taylor's neighbors.
Hankison is the only officer who took part in the raid to be charged. None of the officers involved were charged directly for their role in causing the Black woman's death.
Taylor, a 26-year-old Louisville emergency medical technician studying to become a nurse, was at home in her apartment when she was shot multiple times in March 2020. No drugs were found, and the warrant was later deemed to be flawed.
Taylor's death was among several cases that prompted nationwide demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism that summer. Many protesters demanded that the officers involved in the raid be charged with murder, but the charges against Hankison were the only criminal indictments issued by a special grand jury convened by Kentucky Attorney General Cameron.
Cameron, a Republican and a Black man, acknowledged the heartbreaking nature of the case but said the officers were justified in shooting into Taylor's apartment because her boyfriend, who was in the apartment with her, fired a weapon first.
Activists say this trial is one of the last chances to see some amount of justice for Taylor's death.
WHY WASN’T THE CASE MOVED BECAUSE OF PRETRIAL PUBLICITY?
Hankison’s attorney asked Jefferson Circuit Judge Ann Bailey Smith to move the trial out of Louisville because he felt the publicity surrounding the case would make it hard to seat an impartial jury. Smith denied the request, saying she wasn't convinced moving it to a neighboring county would solve the problem because people there get their news from the same outlets. She left open the possibility of moving the trial but wants to try first to seat a jury in Jefferson County.
HOW DO PEOPLE END UP ON A JURY?
Last week, hundreds of potential jurors from the Jefferson County area gathered at a Kentucky courthouse to learn whether they could be chosen. Their names were gleaned from a master list that includes voters, licensed drivers over 18 and county residents who filed individual tax returns.
The potential jurors filled out questionnaires and were asked to not read or discuss any news about the case.
Jefferson County covers most of Louisville’s metropolitan area. Louisville is Kentucky’s largest city, and was the site of many demonstrations over racial injustice in 2020.
On Tuesday, the judge and lawyers began the process of individually questioning up to 250 jurors without other potential jurors present. The judge has said she wants to cut the pool down to about 50 people before general jury selection begins. The questions are meant to determine if an individual can be fair and impartial. The pool will eventually be whittled down to 12 jurors, plus alternates.
WHO IS QUALIFIED TO SERVE ON A JURY?
To serve on a jury in Kentucky, one must be 18 years of age or older, be a resident of the county in which the case is to be tried, and be able to speak and understand English. They also must not have been convicted of a felony, unless they have received a pardon or full restoration of their civil rights. In addition, they must not be under indictment and not have served on a jury within the past two years.
Potential jurors can be excused if serving on a jury would create an undue hardship or extreme inconvenience. For instance, students and caregivers of young children or elderly residents may be excused.
IS SOMEONE DISQUALIFIED IF THEY ALREADY KNOW ABOUT THE CASE?
Not necessarily. A potential juror may be eliminated for forming an opinion concerning the defendant’s guilt or innocence before the trial begins, but not if they have simply heard about it.
HOW DOES THE COURT ARRIVE AT A FINAL JURY?
Attorneys from both sides take turns eliminating many of the potential jurors from the final pool. They can do this for virtually any reason, and may try to remove jurors that could view their side of the case unfavorably.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it’s unconstitutional to cut potential jurors solely based on race.
Hudspeth Blackburn is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.