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Lawyers begin questioning potential jurors in Brett Hankison criminal case

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WFPL
/
J. Tyler Franklin

After multiple delays, potential jurors arrived at the downtown Louisville courthouse Tuesday morning for the start of the criminal trial of former police officer Brett Hankison. 

Hankison was one of the officers who fired their weapon during the fatal raid on Breonna Taylor’s apartment in March 2020. Her killing sparked months of racial justice protests in Louisville and nationally. Hankison faces three counts of felony wanton endangerment, which are not directly related to Taylor’s death. Rather, the charges stem from bullets Hankison fired into a neighboring apartment while serving the search warrant.

Prosecutors and Hankison’s attorney, Stew Mathews of Cincinnati, spent the day questioning nearly two dozen potential jurors, one after another. In the coming weeks they’re expected to speak with a pool of more than 200 in order to weed out anyone who can’t be unbiased.

Eleven jurors move forward

Lawyers peppered potential jurors with questions about the case, past media coverage and how they feel about police: “Do you have an opinion that he acted in self-defense?” “Do you have any opinion about the issue of police reform?” “Even though the death of Ms. Taylor isn’t the subject of this trial here, would you be able to make a decision right here and put aside any other questions?”

Only 11 of the jurors questioned by attorneys were selected to move forward, otherwise known as being certified. The rest were dismissed for a variety of reasons.

One juror was dismissed because she looked up a news story about the case after she was already selected for jury duty. At least two other potential jurors were sent away, in part, because they indicated they didn’t want to be involved in judging someone and would prefer not to be part of the case. 

“It’s like putting someone’s life in your hands,” one juror, a Black woman, said. “I don’t know if I could do that.”

Multiple jurors indicated that they or a loved one participated in the 2020 racial justice protests held across the country. No one who admitted to demonstrating was certified.

Cameras have been barred from the courtroomduring jury questioning and steps have been taken to obscure their identity from the public and the media. Jurors are identified only by numbers printed on their name tags. 

The first juror to speak with lawyers was a Black woman who said she was a laboratory scientist for Norton Healthcare. She was questioned by prosecutors from the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office about whether she believed Louisville police treated everyone fairly.

“African Americans are mainly targeted for things,” she responded. “We’ll get in trouble for things more than a caucusian does or a different race does.”

While the woman said she thinks Black people are treated more harshly, she told Hankison’s attorney that she didn’t have a negative opinion of the Louisville Metro Police Department. 

Prosecutors also asked the woman about her written response to the questionnaire, which indicated she thought Hankison acted in self-defense. The juror said her initial opinion was just based on what she had read.

“All I saw was what was on social media and I just assumed it was in self-defense,” the woman said. “I saw people say he was just following protocol.”

Asked if she could put what she’s read aside when deciding the case, the woman said she could. Prosecutors and Hankison’s attorney agreed to certify that juror.

An elderly white man, who entered the courtroom wearing an American flag face covering, was another one of the potential jurors selected to move forward. He said he knew roughly what the case was about — that Hankison fired bullets into an apartment near Taylor’s — but he didn’t know much else.

“I don’t know all of the facts,” the juror said. “I haven’t heard both sides of it yet.”

Hankison’s attorney liked that answer: “Perfect response.”

Asked his opinion on police reforms in Louisville that have been introduced in the aftermath of Taylor’s killing, the man said he thinks “something has to be done.”

Of the 11 jurors selected to move forward, three are women and seven are men. All but two are white.

Person-by-person questioning of jurors, known as individual voir dire, will continue for at least the next two weeks, 21 jurors each day. Lawyers are hoping to certify  at least 50 jurors in total.

The trial is expected to start in earnest on Feb. 22, when attorneys will work to narrow the 50 potential jurors down to a final list of 12. They’ll then make arguments and call witnesses, including the other officers who fired their weapons during the raid on Taylor’s home.

Hankison pushes for moving the trial, again

Before any jurors even entered the courtroom Tuesday, Mathews, Hankison’s attorney, requested the trial be moved to a court outside of Jefferson County. Mathews said he was “astonished” by the number of potential jurors who showed bias in their written responses to a questionnaire last month.

“In my opinion, the bell has been rung and they can’t unform the opinions they already have of this case,” Mathews argued before Circuit Court Judge Ann Bailey Smith. “The questionnaires show we are not going to be able to find a fair, impartial and unbiased jury.”

Prosecutors with the Attorney General’s Office argued that even though “the vast majority” of potential jurors indicated they’ve heard about Taylor’s killing, many responded that their opinions of Hankison are “neutral.”

Smith denied Mathews’ request for a change of venue, but said she would consider arguments again after jury selection. Smith said she’s “still hopeful” they’ll be able to seat an impartial jury.

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