Brett Hankison trial: Prosecutors close case after testimony from neighbors, firearms trainer
Prosecutors closed their case against former Louisville police officer Brett Hankison Tuesday afternoon. Jurors heard earlier that morning from a firearms trainer who testified that officers must understand what's behind a target or threat before firing their gun.
Hankison is facing three counts of felony wanton endangerment, stemming from his actions during the deadly police raid on Breonna Taylor’s apartment in March 2020. He’s one of three officers who used their firearm that night. Prosecutors allege Hankison fired blindly through a covered window and patio door, and those bullets traveled through a shared wall into an occupied neighboring apartment. Hankison disagrees with that characterization.
In order to prove that Hankison acted counter to his training and with extreme disregard for human life, prosecutors called officer Matthew Gelhausen to the stand Tuesday. Gelhausen is a firearms trainer with the Louisville Metro Police Department. He also conducted an 8-hour training session in the fall of 2019 attended by existing officers, including Hankison.
Gelhausen told jurors that LMPD officers learned one of the fundamental requirements of using deadly force is: "Always know your target, foreground and background."
“So that’s always knowing what your threat or your target is that you’ve identified, but also knowing what’s around it: what’s in front of it, what’s beside it, what’s beyond it, what’s behind it,” he testified.
Gelhausen also gave jurors a sense of the other classes that officers were required to take that day. The training included courses on the use of guns by plainclothes officers and in low-light situations. He said officers were taught to use flashlights or ambient light to try to identify a threat before shooting.
Hankison has claimed that when officers rammed open the door to Taylor’s apartment he saw a muzzle flash at the end of the dark hallway and that one of his fellow officers, Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, had been hit. Hankison then ran around the side of the building and fired five shots through Taylor’s covered patio sliding glass doors where he believed the muzzle flash came from.
Three of the bullets Hankison fired through the doors traveled through a shared wall and into the kitchen and living room of a neighboring apartment. Cody Etherton, Chelsey Napper and Napper’s 5-year-old son were inside that apartment at the time of the shooting.
Etherton testified last week that one of the bullets came within inches of his face. He called the actions of the officers during the raid “reckless.”
Napper took the stand on Tuesday and corroborated much of Etherton’s testimony. She said everyone in the apartment was asleep when officers arrived at Taylor’s apartment around midnight on March 13, 2020.
After police began attempting to ram open Taylor’s door, Napper said she and Etherton woke up.
“It was like someone set off a bomb or something,” Napper said.
She said Etherton walked out to the living room and then came back into their bedroom to say, “The apartment is being shot up.” Napper said she immediately ran to her five-year-old’s room and got on the ground.
Jurors listened to two of Napper’s frantic calls to 911.
“Our apartment has bullet holes through it, my son is in here sleeping and I need someone to let them know that we need help. I don’t understand what’s going on,” Napper could be heard saying.
After Napper left the stand, Assistant Kentucky Attorney General Barbara Whaley said prosecutors were done making their case. Hankison will now be allowed to call witnesses as part of his defense.
In an opening statement by Hankison’s lawyer Stew Mathews last week, Mathews argued that Hankison’s actions were “reasonable and justified” since officers were shot at first by Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker. He said Hankison acted to “save the lives of his brother officers.”
Judge rules that the jury will decide if Hankison is guilty or not
After the prosecution ended their case, Mathews made a motion for directed verdict, essentially asking the judge to find the prosecution had not proved its case and no reasonable jury would convict Hankison.
Mathews argued that Kentucky’s wanton endangerment law doesn’t apply in this case.
“I cannot fathom that the legislators who passed this statute ever envisioned a time when it would be used to charge an on-duty police officer who returns fire at someone who has fired at him or his brother partner, and his bullets go astray,” Mathews said Tuesday.
He also argued that Hankison could not have known that there was another occupied unit behind Taylor’s apartment. He said other officers had testified during the trial that they were never shown any blueprints or diagrams of the apartment building.
Prosecutors dismissed all of Mathews’ claims and pushed back against the idea that Hankison’s actions were done in self-defense.
Judge Ann Bailey Smith denied Mathews’ motion for a directed verdict, saying a reasonable person would have known Taylor lived in an occupied apartment building when choosing to fire their gun.
“We just recently went to the scene and we saw how close together those apartments are,” Smith said. “As we’ve seen from photographs, the numbers are clearly on the doors of those [other] apartments. Mr. Hankison knew this was an apartment building.”
Hankison will take the stand on Wednesday as the defense’s only witness. The jury is expected to start discussing their verdict after lawyers make their closing statements Thursday morning.