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It’s manslaughter, but feels like murder. Why?

Breonna Taylor was murdered. Or was she?

These are the questions that I ask myself constantly when I think about this particular case. The tragic death of Breonna Taylor has sparked international fury, and in conjunction with the Black Lives Matter movement, has also started debates as to what the police’s role is in modern society. Some believe that the police are needed more than ever before, especially in certain areas with higher levels of crime. Others believe that the police should be defunded and their budget should be redistributed towards fixing the issues that cause crime in the first place, so as to make the idea of policing obsolete. I have also noticed a distinct lack of respect for law enforcement, following the fatal shooting of an officer in Croydon, south London in September. In any case, it has certainly made me wrestle with my conscience, and made me recognise more than ever before that this isn’t a black and white issue (pun not intended).

A protestor against police brutality in Hyde Park, London, UK. Photo credit: Aaron Fenton-Hewitt

Taylor, an emergency worker, was hit by eight bullets as officers executed a no-knock warrant at her house for a narcotics investigation, related to her ex-boyfriend Jamarcus Glover, a convicted drug dealer. Glover was the prime target of the police and was arrested on the night of Taylor’s death. Police believed that Glover was using Taylor’s address to mail drugs from. When the police used a battering ram to enter the apartment, Taylor and her then-boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, believed that intruders were breaking in and fired a warning shot. The bullet hit an officer and the police returned fire, with 32 shots being fired. Taylor was struck eight times and died at the scene. There were no drugs found in her apartment, and Glover is later arrested at another location.

The city of Louisville, Kentucky, reached a record $12 million settlement with her family. According to US law, the definition of manslaughter and murder is culpability and intent. The Cornell Law School refers to U.S. Code 1112, which states that “manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice”. This is different from U.S. Code 1111, which defines murder as “the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought. Every murder…. perpetrated from a premeditated design unlawfully and maliciously to effect the death of any human being….  is murder in the first degree”. There is a clear difference between the two definitions, legally at least. The differences in punishment if convicted are substantial; five to ten years for manslaughter, but upwards of twenty years to life for murder and in some cases, even the death penalty.

A mural of Breonna Taylor in Maryland, USA. Photo credit: Jim Lo Scalzo, the Guardian

However, it’s harder to determine whether or not Taylor’s death constitutes as manslaughter because this involved the police. The most common procedure that officers stick by is that their use of force must be ‘objectively reasonable’. In layman’s terms, the officer must have a reasonable belief in that moment that they, a colleague or bystander were about to be harmed. That procedure is extremely subjective and has come under fierce criticism from the public, as ‘reasonable’ is a very flexible term and could be easily twisted to be in favour of the officer, even if hindsight suggests they were not in danger.

Putting the Taylor tragedy in the context of the law and a moral basis is not an easy thing to do. Legality and morality are not mutually exclusive. Just because something is legal doesn’t make it moral, and vice versa. As humans, we try to make the two be as close together as possible, but it doesn’t always work. At the time of writing, officer Brett Hankison, who was involved in this case, has been charged with “wanton endangerment”, as he allegedly fired into a neighbour’s apartment during the raid. Under Kentucky law, wanton endangerment means to “show an extreme indifference to the value of human life”, which constitutes a five-year sentence for each count. Mr Hankison was charged with three. The hard fact of the matter is that Walker shot first and injured an officer, which is illegal. Officers can then make the argument that this was a ‘reasonable’ cause to return fire. Case closed, right? Well, not exactly. There are nuances to consider. Prosecutors also have discretion whether or not to charge officers. Some prosecutors work quite closely with police, which people say could lead to favourable treatment. It’s legal, but morally questionable. The likelihood is, they won’t be charged if the shooting is deemed as justified. But is it justified? Walker fired one warning shot. One. A single bullet. Does that single bullet justify the 32 that were returned? Where does ‘reasonable’ end and ‘excessive’ begin? Is ‘excessive’ even relevant in the context of a drug raid? Does firing one shot forfeit your life?

All these questions and more make me more conflicted as time goes on. The legal side of me says, “yes, it’s justified, he shot first”, whilst the other side says “he wasn’t justified, no excuse for the death”. There’s also the idea of cause and effect; Taylor had been previously in a relationship with Glover and therefore the police concluded that she might have been part of his drug trade. Even after they ended the relationship, they still had a friendship. Rightly or wrongly, this could simply be a case of ‘guilty by association’; the company that you keep will have an effect on the way you are treated or viewed, in this case fatally. Taylor got herself involved with a drug dealer, and with that came consequences that should have affected him only. Trouble and conflict have a way of following criminals and their loved ones. Mud sticks. I wish it didn’t, but it does.

I feel as if the tragedy of her death was exactly that; a tragedy. To blame her for her own death is to disrespect and gaslight her, but to disregard the choices she made is a serious misnomer. Do I believe she was murdered? No, there is no evidence of intent to kill her to suggest that, but the officers must be questioned.

For me, it’s manslaughter, but it feels like a murder. It’s a tragedy, but it feels like a crime even though it isn’t. My mind should be at ease, but it isn’t.

Aaron Fenton-Hewitt
Aaron Fenton-Hewitt is an aspiring journalist and political commentator. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Film from London Metropolitan University, and a Master's in Writing for Creative and Professional Practice from Middlesex University. He wishes to continue his academic career, with a PhD in Politics or related field. Aaron is also a freelance photographer, an avid foodie and an Arsenal supporter.

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