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Brett Hankison trial: Prosecutors take aim at assault rifle claims

Former Louisville police officer Brett Hankison prepares to leave the courtroom during a recess, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, during his trial in Louisville, Ky. Prosecutors begin their case against Hankison, charged with wanton endangerment for shooting through Breonna Taylor's apartment into the home of her neighbors during botched police raid that killed Taylor. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, Pool)
Former Louisville police officer Brett Hankison prepares to leave the courtroom during a recess, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, during his trial in Louisville, Ky. Prosecutors begin their case against Hankison, charged with wanton endangerment for shooting through Breonna Taylor's apartment into the home of her neighbors during botched police raid that killed Taylor. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, Pool)

Prosecutors looked to dispel claims that someone inside Breonna Taylor’s apartment fired an assault rifle in the deadly police raid on her home during the second day of the trial against former Louisville police officer Brett Hankison.

Hankison, who is one of three officers that fired their guns that night, is facing three counts of felony wanton endangerment. Those charges stem from bullets he fired into Taylor’s apartment that traveled through a wall into a neighboring apartment. Prosecutors allege Hankison showed an extreme indifference to human life, a characterization Hankison denies.

The trial began on Wednesday and is expected to stretch into next week.

Assault rifle claims

Jason Vance, now a sergeant in the Louisville Metro Police Department’s Public Integrity Unit, was Thursday’s first witness. That unit conducts internal investigations into police shootings and misconduct allegations.

Vance, who was the lead internal investigator in this case, walked the jury through photos of Hankison that were taken after the shooting, as well as photos of his gun and other evidence collected from the scene. 

Prosecutors also played a video for the jury of testimony Hankison gave to investigators on March 25, 2020, less than two weeks after Taylor's killing. In the video, Hankison could be heard saying he thought the shooter inside Taylor’s apartment had an AR-15 rifle and that fellow officers were “being executed.”

“What I saw at the time was a figure in a shooting stance. It looked as if he or she was holding an AR-15 or a long gun, a rifle type gun,” Hankison said in that interview. “The large muzzle flash looked like a large muzzle flash from a rifle.”

Vance told the jury, however, that internal police investigators never found such a gun inside the home. Vance said he was confident the crime scene had not been tampered with before investigators arrived.

“The scope of our search was limitless. What that meant was that we could search any area of that apartment legally,” he added.

Vance also told the jury that investigators found no narcotics in Taylor’s apartment. The botched raid on her home was part of a broader narcotics investigation focused on Taylor’s ex-boyfriend.

In the recorded interview, Hankison told investigators that the figure he saw at the end of Taylor’s hallway was in a stance similar to how officers stand when they fire weapons at a shooting range. He said he ran from Taylor’s front door after seeing the flash, went around the building and began shooting through sliding glass doors on the patio. 

“I didn’t know if John [Mattingly] was down and they couldn’t get his body out, or he was… all I could hear was the firing,” Hankison told investigators.

Hankison was one of three officers who fired his gun during the incident in response to a single shot from Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker. Mattingly, who retired from LMPD in 2021, was shot in the leg. Walker later said he thought they were intruders.

Prosecutors have alleged that Hankison blindly fired five shots through the sliding glass doors, which were covered at the time of the raid. Three of those bullets, they say, ended up in an occupied neighboring apartment, which shares a wall with Taylor’s unit. 

Cody Etherton, one of the residents of the neighboring apartment, testified on Wednesday that one of Hankison's bullets came within inches of hitting him. He called officers’ actions that night “reckless.”

Hankison’s attorney, Stew Mathews, argued during opening arguments on Wednesday that Hankison saw someone inside Taylor’s apartment holding an assault rifle. The competing claims may be significant because Mathews has argued Hankison’s actions were “justified and reasonable” based on what the former officer perceived the circumstances to be.

LMPD firearms trainer says officers ‘are accountable for every round’

In addition to attacking the assault rifle argument, prosecutors also tried to dissuade jurors from believing that Hankison acted according to his training during the raid the way he was trained to.

Lt. Steve Lacefield, LMPD’s firearms trainer in 2020, was called to the stand to explain the department’s policies around using deadly force. Lacefield told jurors that LMPD officers are told they “are accountable for every round” they fire. He also said officers are trained to identify a threat or target before using force.

“Are [officers] ever taught that they should fire into the side of a building without a view of any sort?” Assistant Attorney General Eric Finke asked Lacefield.

“If you don’t have a view, no,” Lacefield responded.

Lacefield also told jurors that LMPD officers are told to avoid laying down suppressive fire, which is when an officer shoots at a threat so that other officers can move away from that threat. On cross examination from Hankison’s attorney, however, Lacefield said he had no indication that Hankison was attempting to lay down suppressive fire for his colleagues.

Asked by Mathews whether he was Hankison’s instructor or whether he had ever been involved in a gunfight and knows how someone would react, Lacefield responded “no” to both questions.

Jurors also hear Thursday from Aaron Sarpee, who was picking up his two-year-old daughter from her babysitter, who lived above Taylor. Sarpee attempted to leave the babysitter’s apartment during the raid and got into an argument with Hankison, according to other witnesses.

After going back inside the babysitter’s apartment, Sarpee told jurors he didn’t remember hearing officers identify themselves when trying to enter Taylor’s apartment. He’s given conflicting statements to investigators about that in the past. 

Prosecutors played audio of an interview Sarpee did with internal investigators from LMPD in which he said he heard officers say, “This is the police.”

The jury also heard from three SWAT team members — Chris Kitchen, Brandon Hogan and Mike Burns — who were assigned to assist in searches at other properties along Elliott Avenue the night of the Taylor raid. They rushed over to Taylor’s apartment, miles away, after hearing “officer down” over the radio.

All three SWAT team members confirmed that the patio sliding glass doors, which Hankison is accused of shooting through, were covered by blinds or shades. They also testified that Hankison went back inside Taylor’s apartment after the shooting, which is not normal protocol.

Two body camera videos played for jurors showed Hankison walking through Taylor’s front door and asking SWAT team members if they found any guns in the apartment and if someone was dead inside. 

Former LMPD Chief Steve Conrad also took the stand briefly. He was the chief during the Taylor raid, and went to the University of Louisville Hospital after the incident to check on Mattingly’s injury. 

Conrad told the jury that Hankison also went to the hospital after the shooting rather than going to speak with internal investigators, which is the standard procedure. 

He described a brief conversation he had with Hankison in which he said Hankison was “physically shaking” and appeared angry or nervous.

Former interim Chief Robert Schroeder, who took over after Conrad was fired in 2020, is expected to testify on Friday. Schroeder fired Hankison in June 2020.

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

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