The Kentucky attorney general kept calling her Miss.
Miss Taylor. Miss Breonna Taylor.
He gave her that honorific, that scrap of dignity six months after she was killed.
Tuesday afternoon, Daniel Cameron (R., Ky.) was standing before the news cameras, and therefore the country, to explain the grand jury’s decision in her death. Speaking precisely, calmly, and with a measured cadence from behind a lectern adorned with the golden mark of the commonwealth, the prosecutor wore a suit with a neatly folded white pocket square, along with a dark face mask which he removed as he began to speak. This Black man was accompanied by white colleagues who wore face masks, too. It was a tableau of professional propriety, civic responsibility, and racial bliss.
Cameron used the genteel title — “Miss” — as a matter of formality, but also as a kind of armor. The nicety would serve as evidence of his respectfulness of Taylor, and of his regard for the criminal justice system. The title would also give feeble cover to the system’s indifference to the value of this 26-year-old Black woman’s life. The word would teeter atop a mountain of historical disregard that continues to grow.
Cameron had been tasked with investigating the circumstances surrounding Taylor’s death after three police officers converged on her apartment one early morning in March. Several witnesses say the officers did not announce themselves, although, during his remarks, Cameron said he had a single civilian witness who heard them do so. Taylor’s boyfriend fired a shot in self-defense. The officers released a barrage of bullets — one of which proved fatal to Taylor.
Neither she nor her boyfriend was the object of the officers’ pursuit. She did not have a weapon. She had done nothing wrong. She was simply at home. And she was murdered by police.
Cameron called her death a tragedy. That’s the least of it.
He explained to the country that the three officers who were under investigation would not be prosecuted for her death. One of them, former Louisville Detective Brett Hankison, who fired blindly and wildly through her door, would face charges for the wanton endangerment of the lives of three other people — people who lived in a neighboring apartment. No one would be held to account for Taylor’s death. Taylor was murdered, and the system shrugged.
But at least Cameron called her Miss.
There was little distinctive about Cameron’s news conference, but an awful lot that was familiar, most notably the realization that a family, a community, and a country have once again been asked to sit with the horror of what happened. Bureaucrats love to describe how many collective years of experience were at their disposal to wrestle with some devastating event. In this case, Cameron said among the prosecutors and investigators on his team, there were more than 200, which perhaps should suggest that all those years of expertise working in a flawed criminal justice system simply reflect a dispiriting momentum rather than something about which to brag. For communities who have not been treated equally under the law, it’s not a reason to trust his judgment but to be leery of it.
Nonetheless, Cameron showered his colleagues with public praise — not for going above and beyond like Hollywood’s versions of righteous prosecutors, but for essentially doing their jobs. “The team is here with me today. I want to personally and publicly thank them for their tireless work,” he said. “These men and women are true public servants who for months have shown up every day with a desire for one thing, and that is to seek the truth.”
What truth did they uncover in all their searching? What did they heroically reveal? The criminal justice system decided that the police officers were “justified” in their use of force, “justified” in the return of deadly fire, “justified” in protecting themselves. Taylor’s killing was “justified.”
But, of course, none of that is true. Those determinations are not gospel. They are twisted beliefs, biased understandings, preexisting cultural conditions, falsehoods. And they have long been clear and visible.
Cameron spoke at length about the case, his voice always mellifluous. He rarely stumbled for words. He might not have been practiced, but he was unruffled. At times his words even carried a sense of resigned melancholy. “Criminal law is not meant to respond to every sorrow and grief,” he said.
But surely the law is meant to be just.
Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race, and the arts for the Washington Post. @RobinGivhan