|Updated: 6:05 pm, Fri Feb 12, 2016|
By MARK TOOR
|The Chief-Leader/Michel Friang|
|STUNNED BY THE VERDICT: Peter Liang, walking with attorney Rae Downes Koshetz during jury deliberations, put his head in his hands after hearing himself pronounced guilty of manslaughter. He has been fired by the NYPD because of the felony conviction and faces up to 15 years in prison, although his sentence is likely to be far less severe. His attorneys plan to appeal the verdict.|
In a verdict that his union’s leader said would “have a chilling effect on police officers across the city,” Officer Peter Liang was found guilty Feb. 11 of manslaughter in the second degree in the death of Akai Gurley, who was killed by a bullet the cop accidentally fired in a housing-project stairwell in November 2014.
|The Chief-Leader/Michel Friang|
|HAS TO BE ACCOUNTABILITY: Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson (left) walking here with Joseph Alexis, who helped prosecute the case against Peter Liang, told reporters following the verdict, ‘We support our police officers, but when innocent men are shot and killed through an act of recklessness, we have to hold whoever is responsible accountable, whether that is a police officer or not.’|
A ‘Garner’ Spillover?
Mr. Liang looked stricken, then buried his face in his hands upon hearing the jury’s verdict. As required by state law, he was automatically fired by the NYPD for his conviction of a felony. He was also found guilty of official misconduct, a misdemeanor.
The officer was indicted last February at a time when people were expressing anger at the cases of unarmed black men around the country who lost their lives in encounters with white police officers.
One of those men was Eric Garner, who died of a heart attack in Staten Island on July 17, 2014 after Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo grabbed him around the neck and wrestled him to the ground when he resisted arrest for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Weeks of demonstrations followed a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer, which came two months before Mr. Liang’s indictment.
Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson insisted at the time that the indictment had nothing to do with the Garner case or any of those involving questionable shootings by police officers. He repeated that contention in a sidewalk press conference shortly after the verdict.
The case “only had to do with one police killing, and that’s the one that Officer Peter Liang committed in the Pink Houses on Nov. 20, 2014,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
|PATRICK J. LYNCH: ‘Criminalized a tragic accident.’|
|EDWARD D. MULLINS: Wants vertical patrols suspended.|
|SHAUN LANDAU: Testified against his partner.|
“We want to make it clear that this conviction is in no way a conviction of the NYPD,” he said, adding that police officers “have the most dangerous job on Earth.”
PBA: ‘A Bad Verdict’
Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch, who had predicted earlier in the week that Mr. Liang would be acquitted, commented, “We are very disappointed in the verdict and believe that the jury came to an absolutely wrong decision. This was a terrible and tragic accident and not a crime. This bad verdict will have a chilling effect on police officers across the city because it criminalizes a tragic accident.”
Sergeants’ Benevolent Association President Edward D. Mullins called on the NYPD to “suspend” vertical patrols in the projects.
Based in East New York, the Pink Houses has long been considered one of the city’s most-dangerous projects, and there was a shooting there the week before Officer Liang inadvertently killed Mr. Gurley.
One of the attorneys for Mr. Liang, retired NYPD Capt. Robert Brown, said an appeal would be filed. “We don’t think the decision was supported by the facts or the law,” he said. “It was a terrible accident and it was a terrible decision. I don’t believe anyone who sat in the courtroom could believe otherwise.”
‘Follow Their Training’
Mr. Thompson, whose mother is a retired NYPD officer, told a reporter who asked whether the verdict would discourage cops from active policing, “We have to have police officers who follow the training that they’re given…We support our police officers, but when innocent men are shot and killed through an act of recklessness, we have to hold whoever is responsible accountable, whether that is a police officer or not.”
He continued, “What this shows is that life matters and the lives of public-housing residents matter.” The lives of police officers matter as well, he added.
Mayor de Blasio said, “The death of Akai Gurley was a tragedy. The jury has now spoken, and we respect its decision.”
“I was very happy with the verdict,” said Mr. Gurley’s mother, Sylvia Palmer.
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny K. Chun set sentencing for April 14. The minimum sentence on the manslaughter charge is 3½ years in prison; the maximum is 15. Mr. Liang will remain free until sentencing.
The day after the verdict, the NYPD fired Mr. Landau, who had been facing administrative charges of failing to provide aid to Mr. Gurley or report the shooting. Mr. Landau had been on modified duty since thei ncident.
and defense attorneys drew sharply different pictures of Mr. Liang. Prosecutors Marc Fliedner and Joseph Alexis portrayed a bumbling cop who focused only on himself. After firing the accidental shot, they said, he moaned, “I’m fired,” wasted precious minutes arguing with his partner about who would report the shooting, failed to call for assistance and didn’t administer first aid to Mr. Gurley as he bled to death on a stairwell landing. They said Mr. Liang had held his weapon with his finger on the trigger, in violation of police procedure, as he opened the door to the project stairwell.
Defense: Tragic Accident
Mr. Brown and co-counsel Rae Downes Koshetz, a former NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Trials, said Mr. Liang was involved in a tragic accident. They argued that his gun had malfunctioned. Mr. Liang, 28, and his partner, Shawn Landau, who testified for the prosecution under a grant of immunity, told the jury that he had indeed called for help over the police radio. Both said that though they had been trained and certified in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation in the Police Academy, they were unsure how to actually do it.
Mr. Landau said he felt the woman who accompanied Mr. Gurley into the stairwell as Mr. Liang entered one floor above, Melissa Butler, was better qualified to perform CPR than he was. She testified that she was giving Mr. Gurley chest compressions, following instructions from a 911 operator relayed by a neighbor whose door she had pounded asking for help.
Mr. Liang’s attorneys departed from standard procedure in those rare cases in which a police officer faces a criminal charge by choosing a jury rather than a judge to render the verdict and having their client take the stand. Court observers said they believed the attorneys were hoping that Mr. Liang’s testimony would sway at least one juror.
The officer broke down twice on the stand, weeping into tissues and once leaving the courtroom to regain control of himself. But there were issues with his testimony that may have undermined his credibility.
In particular, Mr. Liang claimed that upon entering the pitch-dark eighth-floor stairwell for a vertical patrol, he held his gun as prescribed in the Police Academy, with his finger held horizontally along the frame of the gun above the trigger. He testified that the gun went off when he was “startled” by a sound on the stairs. He did not explain how his finger had migrated from the frame to the trigger.
Mr. Landau’s testimony was also problematic. Defense attorney Brown brought out under cross-examination that aspects of his story had changed during various interviews with police officials and prosecutors, during testimony before the grand jury that indicted Mr. Liang and on the witness stand at the trial.
Mr. Landau said during cross that Mr. Liang had called for assistance on the radio. Mr. Brown pointed out that he had neglected to mention this during direct testimony. Mr. Landau also told Mr. Brown that he and Mr. Liang had argued for no more than 40 seconds about who was going to call their Sergeant. He had told the grand jury and testified at the trial that the argument took four minutes. Mr. Liang agreed with the 40-second estimate when he took the stand.
Mr. Landau also admitted taking his cell-phone from Officer Liang—the preferred method of communicating in Housing Police Service Area 2—and putting it in his pocket, effectively preventing his partner from getting the number that Officer Landau had stored there for their Sergeant.
When the officers eventually began to descend the stairs to see if anyone had been hit by the bullet, which had ricocheted off a cinderblock wall, they found Ms. Butler already giving Mr. Gurley CPR. She had left the stairwell to frantically alert a neighbor, who then called 911 and joined her in the stairwell.
Liang Lost Focus
Neither Mr. Landau nor Mr. Liang knew the address of the building they were patrolling, a fact that appeared to delay the radio transmission seeking help. Mr. Liang testified that he asked Ms. Butler for the address a couple of times but had trouble absorbing it. Mr. Landau and a Lieutenant who responded to the scene, Vitaliy Zelikov, both testified that Mr. Liang showed signs of extreme distress. Mr. Landau said he collapsed in tears; Mr. Zelikov said he was hyperventilating and could not focus.
Both Mr. Landau and Mr. Liang had graduated from the Police Academy 11 months before the shooting and were still on probation. They were working together despite a directive from Police Commissioner William J. Bratton that rookies should be paired with more-experienced officers, with a shortage of veteran cops assigned to the Housing Bureau cited as the reason.
The jury got the case late in the afternoon of Feb. 9 and deliberated all day Feb. 10. Justice Chun told the jurors that if they could not come to a verdict by the end of Feb. 11, they would have a four-day break for the holiday weekend.
On their final day of deliberations, they asked for two additional whiteboards for sharing notes on the evidence, written evidence on tactical and weapons use from an NYPD textbook, and a review of the charges against Mr. Liang. Justice Chun complied with the requests and told them they could stay as late as they wanted. At 6:40 p.m., the jury sent the judge a note reporting they had a verdict. It was read shortly after 7.
A Range of Choices
Court observers said the jury may have had trouble settling on one of four charges that could have been applied to the shooting. In order of most to least serious, they were second-degree manslaughter, second-degree assault, second-degree reckless endangerment and criminally-negligent homicide. As outlined by Justice Chun, each carried a different requirement for reckless or negligent conduct on the part of Mr. Liang.
The mother of Mr. Gurley’s 3-year-old daughter, Kimberly Ballinger, has filed a lawsuit against the city over his death. Her attorney, Scott Rynecki, a partner of Sanford Rubinstein in a firm that has won several suits against the NYPD, attended every day of the trial, filling yellow legal pad after yellow legal pad with notes.