Updated on October 31, 2020
Breonna Taylor’s Murder: When Legal Definitions Don’t Reflect Reality
Shelby Sternberg Moylan
Shelby Sternberg is a 3L at the University of Kansas. She earned her Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri. Shelby is interested in corporate law, especially work in mergers and acquisitions, and private equity. In her limited free time, Shelby likes to read non-legal books.
While many people have heard, and been outraged by, the legal outcomes of Breonna Taylor’s death, some may be wondering, what does all this mean? When a person is shot in their own home, how is that not legally murder?
One of the outcomes was a settlement of the civil suit for wrongful death. Under Kentucky law, wrongful death is “the death of a person [which] results from an injury inflicted by the negligence or wrongful act of another . . . .” The definition further explains that, “damages may be recovered for the death from the person who caused it, or whose agent or servant caused it.” That emphasized language is especially important in this case because this resulted in a payout by the city of Louisville and imposed no consequences for the specific officers involved. Though Louisville police officers caused the death of Breonna Taylor, they were acting as agents for the city of Louisville.
Additionally, one of the three officers involved was charged with wanton endangerment in the first degree. Again, looking at Kentucky law, “[a] person is guilty of wanton endangerment in the first degree when, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, he wantonly engages in conduct which creates a substantial danger of death or serious physical injury to another person.” But the wanton endangerment charge was based on the gunshots that could have hit Breonna’s neighbors, not for the gunshots that killed her. This further outraged many, because again, the officers were not criminally charged for their actions in her death.
So, what about a murder charge? The grand jury declined to bring any other charges against the officers other than the wanton endangerment charge. This ultimately means that no trial will be held to answer this question. Since the courts won’t take a look, we must decide for ourselves.
Within Kentucky’s Penal Code, one is guilty of murder when “[w]ith intent to cause the death of another person, he causes the death of such person or of a third person . . . .” The officers’ intent is the determinative question that looms. Is it one’s intention to cause the death of another person when they shoot them multiple times? Could it ever not be on those facts? Intent may be obvious but is difficult to prove legally, which further enrages those watching this case and hoping for justice.
 Brakkton Booker, Louisville Agrees To $12 Million Settlement With Breonna Taylor’s Family, NPR (Sept. 15, 2020, 2:22 PM), https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/09/15/913139371/louisville-agrees-to-12-million-settlement-with-breonna-taylors-family.
 Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 411.130 (West, Westlaw through 2020 Reg. Sess.).
 Id. (emphasis added).
 Richard A. Oppel, Jr., Derrick Bryson Taylor, & Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, What We Know About Breonna Taylor’s Case and Death, N.Y. Times (Oct. 23, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/article/breonna-taylor-police.html.
 Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 508.060 (West, Westlaw through 2020 Reg. Sess.).
 Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, What Is ‘Wanton Endangerment,’ the Charge in the Breonna Taylor Case?, N.Y. Times (Sept. 23, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/23/us/wanton-endangerment.html.
 Oppel et al., supra note 4.
 Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 507.020 (West, Westlaw through 2020 Reg. Sess.).