Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
“The rallying cries that have been echoing throughout the nation have been once again ignored by a justice system that claims to serve the people. But when a justice system only acts in the best interest of the most privileged and whitest among us, it has failed. For the sake of Breonna Taylor, for the sake of justice, and for the sake of all Americans, law enforcement agencies and their representatives throughout the country need to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Is this who you are? Is this the example you want to set for the rest of the world and for future generations?” – Benjamin Crump, attorney representing Breonna Taylor’s family
Perversion of justice is too feeble a term to describe the decision of a grand jury in Louisville not to file even a single criminal charge related to Breonna Taylor’s death.
The barrage of gunfire that endangered Breonna’s neighbors is the very same gunfire that took Breonna’s life. The grand jury’s decision that the risk of injuring neighbors is a crime but the actual killing of an innocent young woman is not defies comprehension.
Grand juries respond to the evidence presented to them by prosecutors; because the proceedings are secret, we don’t know what the jurors were told and what was withheld from them. Witnesses are questioned only by the prosecutor, and there is no one to challenge inconsistencies in their statements or cross-examine them.
The tragedy of Breonna Taylor’s death is likely to go down in history as one of the most glaring examples of the two-tiered system of justice we have in the United States in 2020 – one for white Americans and another for Black people.
Kentucky is a Castle Doctrine state and has a “stand your ground” law. But when Breonna’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker – a licensed gun owner with no criminal record – exercised his right under Kentucky law to defend himself and Breonna, he was charged immediately with attempted murder. There is no earthly reason to doubt that he believed a home invasion was in progress and their lives were at stake. He immediately telephoned 911, crying and pleading for help.
The white officers who smashed their way into the home and returned Kenneth’s single shot with a flurry of deadly and reckless gunfire, are absolved. That’s the justice system for white America. If not for the sustained pressure of activists and protesters, Kenneth would still be in jail. That’s the justice system for Black America.
Endangering neighbors with gunfire is a crime. That’s the justice system for white America. Fatally shooting an innocent woman is not a crime. That’s the justice system for Black America.
When white shooters who live in a “stand your ground” state claim self-defense in the death of a Black person, 36 percent are ruled justifiable homicides. That’s the justice system for white America. When Black shooters claim self-defense in cases involving the deaths of white people in these same states, just 3 percent are ruled justifiable homicides. That’s the justice system for Black America.
In February in Georgia, father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael, who are white, fatally shot 25-year-old jogger Ahmaud Arbery, who is Black, after running him down in their truck. The prosecutor in charge of the case immediately determined the gunmen were justified under Georgia’s citizen arrest and self-defense laws
It wasn’t until May, after the New York Times shone light on the case and video of the killing emerged, that the pair were criminally charged.
Attorney Robert Patillo, executive director of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s Peachtree Street Project in Georgia, told NBC News, “Let’s say Arbery was a 19-year-old cheerleader named Lily White, running down the street. Two or three black men hopped in a pickup truck and the chase ended when they shot Lilly White down on tape. I ask you, who among us believes seriously we would be having a conversation, any kind of debate, about whether they should be charged, will be tried or convicted?”
Would police have filed attempted murder charges against a white man who fired on intruders who burst into his home, smashing the door off its hinges? Would police even have sought, or been granted a “no knock” warrant for Breonna’s apartment had Breonna been white? Such warrants, which allow police to enter without declaring themselves, are reserved for targets who are a known danger. Neither Breonna nor Walker had criminal records.
The grand jury’s decision was all the more disheartening for the six months Breonna’s family has waited for justice. It is hard not to give in to despair.
In his most famous speech, Martin Luther King, Jr., called despair both a valley and a mountain. He encouraged us not to wallow in that valley, and to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. Our protests and our advocacy have not been in vain. They have shone a light on injustice. They pressured prosecutors to drop the unjust charges against Kenneth Walker. The criminal justice system may continue to discriminate against men and women of color, but it no longer does so in the shadows.