Newsday
February 11, 2015 7:51 AM

Peter Liang, rookie NYPD officer, indicted in killing of Akai Gurley, unarmed man in NYC stairwell, sources say

By ANTHONY M. DESTEFANO AND MATTHEW CHAYES
anthony.destefano@newsday.com,matthew.chayes@newsday.com

A Brooklyn grand jury has indicted a 25-year-old NYPD rookie officer in the November shooting of Akai Gurley in a darkened stairwell, said sources familiar with the case, which Commissioner William Bratton at the time called a tragic accident.

The exact charges lodged against Officer Peter Liang couldn't be officially determined Tuesday.

A single round from Liang's Glock 9-mm handgun struck and killed the 28-year-old Gurley in the early morning of Nov. 20 as he walked in the stairway of the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York with his girlfriend, police said. Gurley was unarmed, police said.

Shortly after the shooting, legal experts said criminally negligent homicide and possibly manslaughter charges could result.

Bratton didn't release a statement Tuesday because the department hadn't been officially notified of any grand jury action, a spokesman said. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been working to repair his stature with the police rank and file after a troubled past two months, said the case was an "unspeakable tragedy" for the Gurley family.

"We urge everyone to respect the judicial process as it unfolds," said de Blasio, referring to reports of an indictment.

A spokeswoman for Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson declined to comment on the case Tuesday. In a statement, Thompson said he will hold a news conference Wednesday after a 2 p.m. unspecified criminal court arraignment that a legal source familiar with the case said would involve Liang.

Scott Rynecki, an attorney for Gurley's family, said the indictment is "the first step in the fight for justice for the wrongful and reckless shooting of Kai Gurley by Peter Liang."

After the shooting, NYPD investigators described how it happened.

Liang was on vertical patrol checking stairways in the housing area with a rookie partner. He held his handgun in his left hand as he opened the stairwell door. Liang held a flashlight in his right hand but it was unclear which hand he used to open door when he took his finger off the trigger guard. His gun discharged and the bullet may have ricocheted off the stairwell wall before striking Gurley, who was walking down the stairs.

Since the incident, Liang, a probationary officer on the force less than two years, has been on modified duty with no shield or gun. But once he is indicted, Liang will be suspended without pay, an NYPD official said.

Against the backdrop of last year's refusal by a Staten Island grand jury to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of suspected street cigarette seller Eric Garner, comments on Liang's indictment spanned the political spectrum Tuesday.

Patrolmen's Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch cautioned against a rush to judgment and said Liang's due process rights had to be respected.

"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," Lynch said in a statement.

But the Rev. Al Sharpton told Newsday the indictment represented justification for his view that a committed district attorney could get an indictment against a cop.

"DAs matter," said Sharpton, who previously protested the lack of indictments in the Garner case and the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer. "I think this is a vindication of what we have said: that we need DAs that will be fair . . . in many ways, this is what we have been marching for."

Stephen Worth, the defense attorney for Liang, declined to comment Tuesday.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn), commended Thompson for bringing the case.

"The effort to strengthen the relationship between the police and the community necessarily involves holding an officer accountable when an innocent life is taken and a law is broken," Jeffries said.

-- With The Associated Press