Updated: 7:36 pm, Fri Feb 13, 2015.

Cop Indicted for Unintentional Shooting Of Man in Project Stairwell in B’klyn

DA Cites Negligence, Delay in Assisting Victim


The Chief-Leader/Ellen Moynihan
A LONG WALK HOME: Officer Peter Liang, flanked by bodyguards, exits Brooklyn Supreme Court after being released without bail. His partner, Shaun Landau, with whom he allegedly quarreled about reporting the shooting to their supervisor, was not charged in the case because he is cooperating with prosecutors, according to one source.

A Brooklyn grand jury has indicted Police Officer Peter Liang on charges including manslaughter and criminally-negligent homicide for fatally shooting Akai Gurley in a darkened stairwell of an East New York housing project Nov. 20, even as Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson stated following a Feb. 11 court proceeding that he did not believe the young officer intended to do so.

Partner Cooperated in Probe

The essence of the case advanced during the cop’s arraignment earlier that afternoon in Brooklyn Supreme Court was that the inexperienced officer’s carelessness led him to fire the shot that struck Mr. Gurley a floor below, and that the cop, having violated police procedure, had exclaimed, “I’m going to get fired” and refused to call in the incident to his supervisor during a four-minute argument with his partner, according to Marc J. Fliedner, Chief of the Civil Rights Bureau for the DA’s Office.

A source said the partner, Police Officer Shaun Landau, had cooperated with prosecutors and testified against Officer Liang under a grant of immunity.

Even when Officer Liang finally descended a staircase in the Pink Houses to find Mr. Gurley lying mortally wounded three floors below, he offered no medical assistance, Mr. Fliedner said in a packed courtroom presided over by Supreme Court Justice Daniel Chun. Both he and Mr. Thompson contrasted his alleged inaction with the efforts of other cops who arrived on the scene after the shooting was called in by a neighbor and labored fervently to save Mr. Gurley’s life.

Officer Liang’s attorney, Stephen C. Worth, took issue with what he called the “contorted theory” of the incident advanced by the prosecution, and pleaded not guilty on his client’s behalf. He said it was “regrettable” that the DA’s Office had brought the charges, singling out two misdemeanor counts of official misconduct that he claimed were “meant to alienate the defendant and prejudice him” against receiving a fair trial.

No Jail If Convicted?

Those charges are the least of the officer’s worries: the manslaughter count alone carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, though as a first offender Mr. Liang would figure to serve considerably less if convicted. Besides the criminally-negligent-homicide charge, Mr. Liang also faces a felony count of assault and a misdemeanor one of reckless endangerment.

But Eugene O’Donnell, an ex-cop and former prosecutor who’s a Professor at John Jay College, said given the circumstances, he doubted Mr. Liang would serve jail time if convicted but he would be fired even if he was acquitted.

Mr. Liang was freed on his own recognizance, with Mr. Fliedner telling Judge Chun he believed he should not have to post bail even before Mr. Worth could make that request. As the 27-year-old officer left the courtroom, some audience members shouted “Murderer!” and friends and family of Mr. Gurley—who was 28—chanted, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell!” The victim’s aunt, Hertencia Peterson, exclaimed, “Murder my nephew and out on bail! He would’ve been shackled” if Mr. Liang were not a cop.

A day earlier, after it became known that the grand jury had voted to indict him, a statement was issued by Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch saying, “This officer deserves the same due process afforded to anyone involved in the accidental death of another. The fact that he was assigned to patrol one of the most dangerous housing projects in New York City must be considered among the circumstances of this tragic accident.”

Dispels Misconceptions

During the arraignment, Mr. Fliedner sought to dispel what he indicated were two misconceptions about the incident. One involved media reports, quoting anonymous sources, that Officer Liang had tried to open the door to the stairwell with the same hand in which he held his gun, creating the possibility that the shooting was caused by clumsiness when he tried to adjust his grip on the weapon. Rather, the prosecutor said, the cop held the weapon in his left hand and his flashlight in his right and pushed open the door with his right shoulder.

The prosecutor also objected to the characterization in the media of the Pink Houses as “a war zone,” although the project in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods was the scene of a couple of murders over the past year and has long had a reputation for being a dangerous place to live.

During his press conference following the arraignment, DA Thompson emphasized the description offered by Police Commissioner William J. Bratton of Mr. Gurley as “a total innocent,” noting that he was in the stairwell with a female friend he had just visited because he was about to head home.

“He had done absolutely nothing wrong,” the DA said.

‘No Threat to Liang’

By contrast, Mr. Fliedner said during the arraignment, Officer Liang made grievous mistakes in his handling of his weapon despite having completed his Police Academy training just about a year earlier. That training, he noted, included the instruction that an officer carrying his gun while facing no perceived threat “is to place his finger at the side of his weapon. The defendant ignored that part of his training and put his finger on the trigger, [creating] substantial and unjustifiable risk... As a result, Akai Gurley is dead. There was absolutely no threat to [Mr. Liang], his partner or building residents.”

He suggested that although the stairwell was dark because of a burned-out bulb, Officer Liang was clearly aware that someone had been just below he and his partner when his weapon discharged, because rather than immediately heading down the stairs to determine if anyone had been struck by the bullet, he told the partner, “I’m going to be fired.”

And after the lengthy argument between Officer Liang and the partner, who insisted he should be calling it in to their supervisor, when they finally descended the stairs to find the wounded man three floors below, Mr. Fliedner claimed the cop “just stood there” rather than offering the medical assistance he had been trained to provide, leaving it to Mr. Gurley’s friend, Melissa Butler, to attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Mr. Thompson spoke to reporters of “the courage and valor that many police officers showed that night” upon arriving at the scene while “thinking there was an active shooter” inside the building when “they dropped on their knees and tried to save [Mr. Gurley’s] life.

‘No Intent But He Fired’

“We don’t believe that Officer Liang intended to kill Mr. Gurley,” the DA said, “but he had his finger on the trigger and he fired the gun.”

The indictment, while not unexpected because of previous media reports that the cop had not immediately alerted his superiors to the shooting that ended with a fatality, stood in sharp contrast to the lack of one by a Staten Island grand jury two months earlier in the death of Eric Garner. That decision produced a public outcry because of a video showing Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo using what appeared to be a chokehold after Mr. Garner rebuffed attempts to handcuff him for allegedly selling loose cigarettes near the Staten Island Ferry terminal last July.

Mr. Worth told reporters following the court hearing that in contrast with his handling of that case on behalf of Mr. Pantaleo, he did not have his client testify before the Brooklyn grand jury because he believed Mr. Thompson was bent on an indictment.” In the Staten Island case, questions about how aggressively District Attorney Dan Donovan had sought an indictment intensified a month later when he announced his intention to run for the congressional seat that had just been vacated by Michael Grimm following his guilty plea to Federal fraud charges. Staten Island is by far the city’s whitest and most-conservative borough; Brooklyn is one of its more-liberal ones and has a large black population.

DA Thompson shrugged off Mr. Worth’s claim, calling it “totally baseless” and saying, “The easiest thing to do is attack the prosecutor.”

He also parried a question about whether the grand jury might have been influenced by the outrage felt in most parts of the city when the Garner grand jury did not indict Officer Pantaleo. Referring also to the other case that triggered an outcry after a black man was killed by a white cop—the death of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson a month after Mr. Garner’s death—the DA said, “I think it’s unfair to say the grand jury did anything because of Eric Garner. This case has nothing to do with Ferguson or Eric Garner or any other case.”

‘Owe Cop, Victim Fair Trial’

He declined to say what evidence his office will present at trial that Officer Liang intended to pull the trigger; the next court hearing has been set for May 14 before Justice Chun.

“Police Officer Liang is going to be given a fair trial,” the Brooklyn DA said. “We owe that to Police Officer Liang, we owe that to all the police officers of New York City, and we owe that to the memory of Akai Gurley.”