Two Trials: A Compelling Story About How State Attorneys General Fight for—or Prevent—Justice
By dissecting the divergent outcomes in the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor cases, Two Trials offers a searing look at the criminal justice system and what happens when the people we elect to public office act in the public interest—and what happens when they don’t, when politics and personal ambition get in the way of justice.
“Why was George Floyd’s killer convicted, while Breonna Taylor’s was not? Why did the system fail yet another Black woman?”
Those questions are at the heart of Two Trials, a compelling new documentary from director Candice Vernon that examines America’s criminal justice system, and specifically, the role of the state attorney general (AG), the top lawyer and law enforcement official in each state.
Featuring nearly 20 interviews with attorneys, elected officials, community leaders, police officers, and activists, the documentary meticulously analyzes the circumstances behind two tragic police killings that rocked America in 2020, the movement they ignited, and the justice—or lack thereof—that was served.
The film offers no easy or satisfying answers, but instead paints a searing portrait of what happens when the people we elect to public office act in the public interest—and what happens when they don’t, when politics and personal ambition get in the way of justice.
The Leadership Center for Attorney General Studies, one of the organizations behind the film, says the goal of the film is to help educate viewers about the importance of the state AG position.
“State Attorneys General have an extraordinary impact on the lives of their constituents and broad powers, which are typically little understood by most of the people they serve,” Sean Rankin, executive producer and president of the Leadership Center for AG Studies, said in a statement. “The person in the AG office can make all the difference—for the better or worse.”
That difference is on full display in Two Trials. In the Floyd case, Minnesota AG Keith Ellison used his power to hold Floyd’s killer accountable. In the Taylor one, Kentucky AG Daniel Cameron used his power to mislead the public and grand jurors, all but guaranteeing her killers would not be convicted.
‘Say Her Name’
On March 13, 2020, Louisville Metro police officers executed a search warrant and used a battering ram to enter Taylor’s apartment without announcing themselves. The police department said they were investigating two men for selling drugs and believed that one of them, Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, used her apartment to receive packages.
Taylor and her then boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were in bed, but got up when they heard the banging at the door. Both called out, asking who was there. Walker later told investigators they got no response and he feared it was Taylor’s ex-boyfriend trying to break in.
Officers broke the door down, prompting Walker—who had no idea they were cops—to fire his gun out of self-defense, a legal act in Tennessee due to the state’s stand your ground law. Walker’s shot struck Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly in the thigh. Mattingly and his fellow officers responded by unleashing a hail of bullets in the apartment. They shot the 26-year-old Taylor five times and she died within minutes, according to the local coroner.
The actions of the police officers came under some immediate scrutiny locally, but it took more than two months for Taylor’s death to become a national scandal.
“I truly believe but for what happened to George Floyd, nobody would have paid attention to Breonna,” Hannah Drake, a Louisville activist, poet, and writer, says in the film.
On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, suffocating him and killing him while his colleagues watched, failing to intervene.
Within hours, footage of the killing was online and protesters took to the streets of Minneapolis, demanding accountability and justice. Within days, millions of Americans from all across the country—cooped up from two months of pandemic restrictions and outraged by another police killing of a Black man—poured into the streets, launching one of the largest ever protest movements in the history of the United States
Floyd and Taylor’s deaths became intertwined—“Say his name” and “Say her name” the rallying cries of a movement fed up with police killings, racism in the criminal justice system, and a country that too often fails to recognize Black life as valuable.
A Tale of Two Attorneys General: Securing Justice and Preventing it
Typically, a local district attorney (DA) handles investigations into killings, but due to a conflict of interest in the Louisville DA’s office, Cameron, a Republican and the first Black man to become Kentucky AG, took over the inquiry into Taylor’s death in mid-May.
Two and a half weeks later, Ellison, a Black man and a Democrat, did the same with the Floyd investigation at the request of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.
From there, the investigations diverged dramatically, and the film convincingly argues that Ellison used his power to secure justice, while Cameron used his power to prevent it.
The film features interviews with Ellison and several members of his prosecution team and shows them going through pain-staking efforts to build a case against Chauvin.
In contrast, Cameron’s actions come under intense scrutiny from local leaders, attorneys, and the Taylor family. A former staffer for Sen. Mitch McConnell, Cameron is a rising star in Kentucky politics. But what he is not—and was not when he was elected in 2019—is an experienced lawyer or public servant.
“If you’ve never had a client and you have never set foot in a courtroom, you are not qualified to be an attorney general,” Steven Romines, Kenneth Walker’s attorney, says in the film. “His lack of experience as a lawyer has shown throughout his tenure as attorney general.”
On Sept. 23, 2020, Cameron announced that a grand jury convened in the case failed to file homicide charges against the officers involved in Taylor’s killing. He claimed that his prosecution team presented “all of the evidence” in the case to the grand jury and that the grand jury agreed that the officers were justified in returning deadly fire after Walker fired his gun.
In reality, as we later came to learn and as the film recounts, Cameron never recommended homicide charges and instead only recommended a charge of “wanton endangerment” for one of the three officers involved. That was the only charge grand jurors were allowed to consider—a fact Cameron only admitted after a grand juror publicly but anonymously contradicted his version of the story and a judge ordered him to release the grand jury recordings.
Piece by piece, attorneys, activists, and community leaders methodically dissect Cameron’s failures, or, looked at another way, his successes in protecting the police officers involved—and perhaps his own political future as a Black Republican hoping to be the next governor of a deeply conservative state.
“As a Black man, as someone who is supposed to help within the Black community, you didn’t do that. You did the complete opposite. You helped cover up for these officers,” Ju’Niyah Palmer, Taylor’s sister, says in the film.
“I think Breonna turned political and it shouldn’t have,” Drake, the Louisville activist, writer, and poet, added.
More than 700 miles away, in Minnesota, Ellison secured a conviction and Chauvin was found guilty on murder and manslaughter charges and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.
“The police are deadly. Deadly. And they should be held accountable,” Marcia Howard, a resident of George Floyd Square, says in the film. “An attorney general can step into their power without overstepping … They can just activate on behalf of the law. Just do your job. Because it is really obvious when they don’t.”
The film’s examination of Cameron and Ellison’s diverging actions effectively highlights the impact of the AG position—how the people’s lawyer can serve the people, or themselves.
It’s the sort of film that Rankin plans to produce more of.
“Two Trials is our first of many planned efforts to create long-form narratives that can educate the general public on the role of State Attorneys General; the clear contrast between the handling of the cases of Breonna Taylor’s death and the death of George Floyd will demonstrate to the public the importance of the office and why your State Attorney General matters,” he said.
‘We Want You to Stop Murdering Us’
The film, which has a runtime of just 50 minutes, focuses primarily on the two cases and Ellison and Cameron’s actions. But it does dedicate its final minutes to the broader issues of equality, human rights, and the fight against police brutality.
“We have not stopped this chronic use of arbitrary force against a distinct minority group. And it is within our power to stop it and we must stop it,” Ellison says.
In one of its more haunting moments, the film presents a scroll featuring the name of every victim killed by police in Minnesota since 2000. There are roughly 470 names.
“Why does there have to be a fight for human rights? Why is it just not the norm?” community organizer Talesha Williams asks in the film. “We don’t want justice. We want you to stop murdering us. We don’t want to have to ask for justice. We just simply want to exist.”
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The Two Trials is a co-production between the Leadership Center for Attorney General Studies and Five to Sixty.
Director: Candice Vernon
Executive Producers: Sean Rankin, Nic Weinfeld, Jack Rosman, Ethan Moore
Producer: Cindy Lu
Editor: Carlos Crooks
Director of Photography: Veronica Bouza