This report is part of “Turning Point,” a groundbreaking month-long series by ABC News examining the racial reckoning sweeping the United States and exploring whether it can lead to lasting reconciliation.
It was just before 1 a.m. on a Friday night in March when 26-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor drifted to sleep with her boyfriend Kenneth Walker. They had been watching a movie as Louisville, Kentucky, police swept through several homes in the city tied to suspected drug operations.
Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover, was a suspect in the officers’ search. He was arrested 10 miles away from her home earlier that night. Police suspected that Glover had been sending mail to Taylor’s apartment. Believing there may be drugs or money there, police arrived at her home with a warrant. Police say they announced themselves repeatedly, but Walker said Taylor repeatedly asked who was there and did not receive an answer.
Fifteen minutes after arriving at Taylor’s door, police would fire 22 bullets into the home, with eight striking and killing Taylor.
The details in Taylor’s death were unknown and overshadowed by other high-profile killings of Black men and then the COVID-19 pandemic. When George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis in late May and bystander video of the incident was shared on social media, the issue was brought front and center. People remembered Taylor’s case, and calls for justice began to ring out amid the countrywide protests.
The police did not find any drugs or money related to drugs in Taylor’s home.
The night Breonna Taylor died
On the night Taylor died, Walker said in a statement that, contrary to police claims that they announced themselves repeatedly, neither he nor Taylor had heard police when they banged on the door before entering. He said Taylor called out at least twice, asking, “Who is it?”
Believing someone had broken into her apartment, Walker grabbed his legally owned gun.
“I never even fired my gun outside of the range. I’m scared to death,” he said in a statement that night. “When we get out of bed or whatever, like walking toward the door, the door comes off the hinges, so I just let off one shot.”
Officials allege Walker’s shot hit Sgt. John Mattingly in the leg.
“As soon as the shot hit, I feel the heat in my leg,” Mattingly said in new audio from a police interview conducted the night of the shooting. “So I return fire with, I think, four shots.”
Two other officers executing the warrant, Detective Myles Cosgrove and Detective Brett Hankinson, also fired their guns into the apartment. “And it was simultaneous,” said Mattingly, “Just boom, boom, boom … and I think I got two more off around the corner of the door.”
“Next thing I know,” Walker said later on that night, “she’s on the ground and the door’s busted open, and I’m yelling, ‘Help,’ because she’s right here bleeding and nobody’s coming, and I’m just confused and scared.”
Taylor’s family learned about the incident in pieces. Her sister, Ju’niyah Palmer, said she’d heard about a shooting on their street and thought it involved two people who had gotten into an argument where one shot the other. Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, said she was asleep when Walker called her.
“I said, ‘Hello,’ and all I could hear is Kenny crying,” Tamika Palmer said. “And he said, ‘Somebody kicked in the door and shot Breonna.’ … And he was screaming her name.”
Tamika Palmer said she dropped her phone and that when she picked it back, Walker’s phone had disconnected. She rushed to Taylor’s apartment.
“We’re [were] just standing out here and waiting and still begging to see Breonna,” Tamika Palmer said. “And so, it’s about 11 [o’clock] in the morning and the officer comes back over. He says, ‘Well, it won’t be much longer, and you guys will be able to go in.’ And so I screamed at him, ‘Why won’t you just tell me where Breonna is? Like, why won’t you?’ And he said, ‘Well ma’am, she’s still in the apartment.'”
Taylor’s mom said that at that moment, even though the officer didn’t say her daughter had died, she “knew what it meant.”
A crime scene analysis
After analyzing over 1,200 photos of the scene obtained by ABC News, Robert Boyce, former chief of detectives for the New York Police Department, said that during the thousands of search warrants carried out by law enforcement across the United States, “gunfire is very unusual.”
“It’s these horrible incidents that happen; that do happen, unfortunately,” he said. “So it’s important to understand and keep things serious. Had they been wearing body camera[s], you’ll be able to hear the audio: ‘Police, police police.’ And that’s important. We don’t have that here.”
The photos showed how one officer, Hankinson, fired 10 shots from outside Taylor’s home through her door. In a termination letter posted to the Louisville Metro Police Department’s Twitter in June, Chief Robert Schroeder said Hankinson violated deadly force procedures when he “blindly” fired the rounds.
“Somebody has to explain why he did that,” said Boyce, an ABC News contributor who is not connected to the case. “Did he see the muzzle flash? Did someone point a gun at him? He has to explain that because … he’s covering the escape route. He’s not part of the entry team.”
Cosgrove and Mattingly were placed on administrative leave and no charges have been filed against any of the officers. Daniel Cameron, Kentucky’s attorney general, released a statement this week saying the investigation was still ongoing.
Walker was arrested on the same night Taylor was killed and later charged with attempted murder and first-degree assault. His charges were eventually dropped.
“My life changed forever,” he said during a press conference earlier this month. “I was raised by a good family. I am a legal gun owner, and I would never knowingly shoot a police officer. I can no longer remain silent.”
Meanwhile, Lonita Baker, the attorney representing Taylor’s family in a civil suit against the Louisville Metro Police Department, said they’re still trying to determine why the police went forward with the search warrant after Taylor’s ex-boyfriend was arrested.
“That’s one of those questions we’re still trying to figure out,” Baker said. “We know Jamarcus was apprehended, so why did they execute the warrant? And it’s our belief, just based off of some of the things that happened, that the warrant was called off for Breonna’s [home], but they chose to still execute it.”
“They sprayed the entire apartment with gunfire, the neighboring apartments with gunfire,” she went on to say. “The firing of a single shot would not justify that. … Even if drugs were found in her apartment, and they were not, even if money were found in her apartment — it was not — it would not justify Breonna’s death in any way.”
Remembering Breonna Taylor
Taylor’s family said she was the type of person who wanted to help others, and that she had a “big heart,” her sister said. “Sometimes too big.”
“She just wanted to make sure nobody else had to suffer,” said Ju’niyah Palmer of her sister’s work as an EMT and first responder. “If they didn’t have anybody at home, that they would be able to have her. She would get close with her patients to the point where if it was a patient she knew would need her at the end of the day, she would extend her number to make sure her patient understands like, ‘I care.'”
Her mother said Taylor was full of life and a “much better version of me.”
“She’s always been strong and just powerful, even as a kid. She always had her head on straight,” Tamika Palmer said.
Fighting for justice for Breonna Taylor, and so many more
Taylor died just three weeks after Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead while jogging on a Georgia street and 10 weeks before video circulated showing Floyd dying as he gasped for air while a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck, the latter of which sparked worldwide Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality.
During the ensuing protests, demonstrators not only chanted, “Say his name,” for the countless Black men unjustifiably killed, but they chanted, “Say her name,” for Breonna Taylor as well.
“I’ve never seen a movement for a Black woman who was killed by police that touched people in Africa and in Europe and across the world,” said Tamika Mallory, co-founder of Until Freedom, an organization dedicated to social justice and ending police brutality.
Journalist LZ Granderson said it was the video of Floyd’s death that sparked such intense outrage. “Breonna Taylor doesn’t have a video; doesn’t even have body cam,” he said. But when word began circulating that “something like this occurred in Louisville, that’s the reason why, in terms of the public’s knowledge, that her name came after Mr. Floyd’s.”
“We know that just by what we’ve seen over the years, and specifically even with Breonna Taylor’s case, it took George Floyd being murdered in a brutal way to make people say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a lot of things happening in here. There are people being killed all over the country,'” said Mallory.
She said her organization, co-founded by Linda Sarsour, Mysonne Linen, and Angelo Pinto, had originally planned on being in Louisville for a month, but they decided to stay until there’s an announcement on whether the officers involved in Breonna’s death will be charged.
The “Say Her Name” campaign, launched by the African American Policy Forum in 2014, has become a unifying mantra for advocates who wish to highlight the stories of women of color who’ve been victimized by police.
“‘Say Her Name’ is designed to do just that: make it where we don’t need to have a man killed or a focus on men in order for us to also acknowledge the women that we have lost and the challenges that women feel,” she said. “And so, when people say ‘Say Her Name,’ it is to say, ‘Give us priority. Give our lives attention. Give our death and our circumstances the same attention you would give to anyone else.'”
As pressure mounts, the Louisville Metro Police Department recently announced the appointment of a new interim police chief, Yvette Gentry, the first Black woman to lead the department. However, Taylor’s supporters said it’s not enough.
“Justice is the officers being held accountable for their actions in her death,” Baker said. “But justice is also true, systemic reform. … We need police reform immediately. And so, I think that if all we get out of this is that these officers are charged and arrested and convicted, we’ve not done enough with everything that’s going on.”
Amid calls for justice for Taylor have been demands for a grand jury to convene. It remains to be seen whether that will happen. Until then, her family waits.
Tamika Palmer said she misses her daughter “more than life.” She said it’s “amazing to have all these people standing up for her, saying her name.”
“I always knew should would be great,” Tamika Palmer said. “I hate that she had to die to be great.”
ABC News’ Karin Weinberg, Candace Smith, Steph Wash, Sabina Ghebremedhin, Keturah Gray, Muriel Pearson, Emily Wynn and Jahmia Phillips contributed to this report.
What we know about Breonna Taylor’s death and the ongoing fight for justice originally appeared on abcnews.go.com