March 29, 2016, 10:27 AM

Mixed Verdict on DA’s Request of No Jail Time for Cop in Stairwell Killing

PBA: Just Decision; Others Outraged

By Mark Toor

VIGOROUS PROSECUTION TEMPERED BY MERCY: Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson, who some believed was unduly aggressive in his office’s prosecution of then-Police Officer Peter Liang (right) in gaining a second-degree manslaughter conviction, has modified his posture in requesting that the trial judge not impose jail time for the fired cop, instead seeking six months of house arrest and five years’ probation when he is sentenced April 14.

Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson recommended last week that former NYPD Officer Peter Liang be spared prison time for the accidental fatal shooting of Akai Gurley in a housing-project stairwell despite having obtained a man­slaughter conviction in the case in February.

In a March 22 sentencing memo to State Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun, Mr. Thompson proposed that Mr. Liang be sentenced to six months of home confinement and five years of probation, as well as 500 hours of community service.

Sentencing April 14

Mr. Liang could be sentenced to an indeterminate prison term of between 1 to 3 years and 5 to 15 years at a proceeding scheduled for April 14.

“In the alternative,” Mr. Thompson said in his letter, “the court may impose a period of probation of three, four or five years, if the court, upon considering the nature and circumstances of the crime, and the history, character and condition of the defendant, is of the opinion that ‘institutional confinement’ for the term authorized by the law is not necessary for the protection of the public and ‘such disposition is not inconsistent with the ends of justice.’

“...Because the incarceration of the defendant is not necessary to protect the public, and because of the unique circumstances of this case, the People do not believe that a prison sentence is warranted.”

Mr. Gurley’s family—his mother, Sylvia Palmer; stepfather, Kenneth Palmer; and aunt, Hertencia Petersen—issued a statement saying, “This sentencing recommendation sends the message that police officers who kill people should not face serious consequences. It is this ongoing pattern of a severe lack of accountability for officers that unjustly kill and brutalize New Yorkers that allows the violence to continue.”

‘Cops Make Mistakes’

But Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said Mr. Thompson’s recommendation made sense. “Police officers are human beings and as such can make mistakes while risking their lives to protect the community,” he said in a statement.

“Criminalizing a mistake, even a tragic accidental discharge like this, serves no good purpose. The reasons cited by the DA for justifying no jail time in this tragedy are the very same reasons that the officer should not have been indicted in the first place.”

Others criticized the recommendation.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund said, “Much of what was won—the belief that police could actually be held accountable for their actions—will be lost if Liang’s sentence is not commensurate with the harm he caused, especially when the same leniency is not afforded to other defendants.”

City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who has been outspoken on issues of civil rights and perceived police abuses, said, “The mitigating circumstances explained in District Attorney Thompson’s decision might very well justify a reason for not offering the maximum sentence available; but it is hard to accept that it would be offered for no prison time at all.”

‘Could Have Chilling Effect’

“The recommendation could have a chilling effect on accountability,” Mr. Williams said. “It can provide the basis that any officer, even if convicted of man­slaughter, should not serve prison time as long as they did not ‘intend’ to kill an unarmed human being. Black life must be shown to have more value.”

A jury found Mr. Liang guilty Feb. 11 of firing an errant shot that killed Mr. Gurley and of failing to give him first aid. Mr. Liang testified that he had his gun drawn when he entered the stairwell at the Louis Pink Houses on a vertical patrol on Nov. 20, 2014. Although he insisted that his finger was held away from the trigger as prescribed by the NYPD, he said he fired accidentally when he was startled by a noise.

Mr. Gurley and a friend, Melissa Butler, had just entered the stairwell one floor below. Mr. Liang’s bullet ricocheted off the concrete wall and struck Mr. Gurley in the heart.

Delayed Checking Impact

Officer Liang, who said he was unaware that anyone was in the stairwell, testified that he went back into the hallway and argued briefly with his partner, Shaun Landau, about reporting the shooting to their bosses.

He and Mr. Landau then went down the stairs, where they came upon Mr. Gurley and Ms. Butler, who was giving him CPR according to instructions from a 911 dispatcher relayed by a neighbor who was on the phone.

Neither Mr. Landau nor Mr. Liang attempted to take over the effort to save Mr. Gurley’s life. They both testified that they did not feel confident in giving CPR, that instruction they received at the Police Academy was rushed and that their instructors fed them answers so they could pass the certification test. A medical examiner testified that CPR would have been ineffective on a victim shot through the heart.

Mr. Liang was fired automatically upon his conviction for a felony. Mr. Landau had been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony, but the NYPD dismissed him the day after the verdict. Both men had been out of the Police Academy less than a year at the time of the shooting.

Split Blacks, Asians

The case caused outrage at a time when blacks were protesting the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement around the country. It also upset the Asian community, which maintained that Mr. Liang was being scapegoated for an accident in which a white police officer would not have been charged.

Mr. Thompson wrote that his recommendation was consistent with the term meted out to former Officer Brian Conroy for his fatal shooting in 2003 of Ousmane Zongo, the last time an NYPD officer was convicted in the death of an unarmed civilian. Mr. Conroy was given five years’ probation and 500 hours of community service.

Mr. Conroy, dressed as a postal worker, was part of a team investigating illegal trafficking in CDs and DVDs at a Manhattan warehouse. Mr. Zongo had a repair business in the building. He ran from Officer Conroy, who shot him during the pursuit. Authorities said he was not involved in the trafficking, and the family accepted a $3-million settlement.

“Peter Liang was indicted, prosecuted and subsequently convicted by a jury because his reckless actions caused an innocent man to lose his life,” Mr. Thompson wrote. “There is no evidence, however, that he intended to kill or injure Akai Gurley. When Mr. Liang went into that building that night, he did so as part of his job and to keep the people of Brooklyn and our city safe.”

State Assemblyman Ron Kim, who represents parts of Queens and Brooklyn, said, “The Asian community has sent a very clear message that we will not be subjected to double standards, and that we will not be scapegoated for the failings of our justice system.”

He said he would work with Assemblyman Walter Mosley, a black lawmaker who represents parts of central Brooklyn, to make sure the case doesn’t raise tensions between blacks and Asians and to hold the NYPD responsible for training failures and for pairing two rookies in the Pink Houses.