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As Brett Hankison trial gets underway, Breonna Taylor's neighbor describes almost being shot

Brett Hankison leaves the courtroom
Brett Hankison leaves a courtroom after his trial in Kentucky state court in March 2022.

The high-profile criminal trial of a former Louisville police detective Brett Hankison began Wednesday morning at the downtown courthouse.

Hankison faces three counts of felony wanton endangerment for his actions during the deadly March 2020 raid on Breonna Taylor’s home. The charges stem from Hankison’s shooting through Taylor’s patio door and sending bullets into an occupied neighboring apartment. 

While the Louisville Metro Police Department’s then-Interim Chief Robert Schroeder wrote in a pre-termination letter that Hankison “fired blindly,” he denies that characterization. 

Taylor, an unarmed 26-year-old Black woman, died in her hallway after being shot multiple times during the raid. Ballistics reports showed none of Hankison’s bullets struck her. No one was charged for her killing.

A final jury pool of 15 residents was selected Tuesday after lawyers questioned more than 200 potential jurors, an unusually high number due to the case’s prominence.

Prosecutors allege Hankison endangered Taylor’s neighbors

The trial began with an opening statement from Barbara Whaley of the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office who cautioned the jury from getting too hung up on the details of the raid on Taylor’s apartment.

“This is not a case to decide who is responsible for the death of Breonna Taylor,” Whaley said. “This is not a case about the search warrant for Breonna Taylor’s apartment … This is not a case about the Louisville Metro Police Department as to whether there needs to be reform or more support for officers who put their lives on the line everyday. This is not that case.”

Whaley told jurors that the case is about Hankison, whose actions put the lives of Taylor’s neighbors in danger that night. She showed the jury aerial photos of the apartment complex and floor plans, noting a wall Taylor shared with neighbors Cody Etherton, Chelsey Napper and Napper’s 5-year-old child, Zayden.

Whaley said officers entered a cramped hallway, or breezeway, around midnight to execute a search warrant on Taylor’s Springfield Drive apartment. Although the search warrant had been approved as a “no knock,” Whaley said officers knocked and announced their presence. After not getting a response, they decided to ram down the door.

While three other officers — Myles Cosgrove, Jonathan Mattingly and Mike Nobles — attempted to breach the door, Hankison was arguing with an upstairs neighbor who refused to go back inside, prosecutors said. 

Then Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, fired a single shot, striking Mattingly, and other officers began returning fire. Walker later said he believed the plainclothes police were intruders.

Whaley said evidence collected from the scene shows Hankison went around the side of the apartment and fired five shots through a covered patio door. Three went through the shared wall and into Etherton’s and Napper’s apartment. Bullets, allegedly from Hankison’s gun, were recovered from the kitchen and living room. Another went through their glass patio door.

Whaley ended her opening statement by asking the jury to view Hankison’s actions that night as showing an “extreme indifference to human life.”

“So I ask you to pay close attention to the testimony, and keep in mind what were the circumstances under which this defendant acted?” Whaley said. “The circumstances of this crowded apartment building, many, many people inside this building.”

Hankison’s attorney, Stew Mathews, did not discuss all of the evidence and testimony the jury would see during the trial. Mathews said much of the evidence is not in dispute, and Hankison admits to firing his gun that night. 

Instead, Mathews told jurors that the key issue in the case was “why he fired those shots.”

"He was attempting to fight and save the lives of his brother officers," Mathews said of Hankison’s motivations. 

Mathews said the Louisville Metro Police Department teaches officers to shoot until the threat stopped, and that’s exactly what Hankison did. He said the entire incident lasted 5 - 15 seconds.

“It was chaos,” Mathews said.

He told the jury that at the end of the trial he believed they would find Hankison’s actions were “justified and reasonable,” given the circumstances.

The first witnesses are called

Prosecutors called Etherton, who lived in the apartment where Hankison’s bullets ended up, to testify about his experience the night of the Taylor raid and shortly after. He was the first witness to be called.

Etherton, who said he works in construction and has been sober for about 5 years, said he, Napper and Napper’s son were all present in the apartment the night of the raid. Napper was also pregnant with his child, he said. 

Etherton said they all went to sleep around 10 p.m. and he woke up to loud banging coming from outside his apartment. He later identified the banging as officers using the ram to break down Taylor’s door. 

“I kind of speed-walked down the hallway to go toward the front door to, you know, protect my family,” Etherton testified. 

That’s when Etherton said bullets came through the wall in his dining room, which shares a wall with Taylor’s apartment.

“Debris started going past my head, my face,” he said. “I pretty much knew, ‘cause I heard the shots, that it was gunfire coming through the wall. When drywall started hitting me in the face, I knew.”

Etherton told jurors that he dropped to the floor and crawled back to the bedroom where Napper was. He told her to call 911 and tell them “this is not the same apartment.” Etherton told the jury he believes police acted “reckless” that night.

He said the three bullets, allegedly from Hankison’s gun, that made it into his apartment could have injured him, Zayden or Napper.

"One or two more inches I would have been shot," Etherton said. “I wouldn’t have even been able to meet my kid.”

On cross examination, Mathews, Hankison’s attorney, introduced Etherton’s lawsuit against LMPD, Louisville Metro and individual officers as evidence. Mathews asked if Etherton was motivated to testify in the criminal trial because of his lawsuit.

While Etherton said he did want money for damages from the incident, he said that had no influence on his testimony.

Jurors also heard Wednesday from two officers who also participated in the raid: Mike Nobles and Anthony James. Both gave a timeline of events that night, from a planning meeting at 10 p.m., staging at a church, then arriving at the Springfield Drive apartment building. 

LMPD Sgt. Kyle Meany also took the stand. He  worked with the Place Based Investigations Unit, which focused on interrupting drug trafficking and violent crime. It was that unit that was responsible for getting the search warrant for Taylor’s home. Meany told the jury about Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover, who he described as a relatively high-ranking person in a drug operation based on Elliot Avenue. 

Hankison’s attorney asked both Meany and Nobles to describe the investigation leading up to the raid on Taylor’s apartment. Meany said LMPD’s Criminal Interdiction Division never had the opportunity to search Taylor's apartment for the evidence they sought as part of the narcotics investigation, which is what led them to her door.

Mathews has argued that Hankison saw someone inside Taylor’s apartment holding an assault rifle. While no such weapon was ever recovered, Mathews had argued it's impossible to say definitively because a search was never conducted.

Prosecutors and Mathews agreed to take jurors to Taylor’s apartment building on Friday afternoon so that they can see the scene for themselves.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.