The Guardian
11 February 2016 20.01 EST

NYPD officer Peter Liang convicted of manslaughter in Akai Gurley shooting

Officer was patrolling Brooklyn public housing facility with his gun drawn when he says he accidentally fired, killing unarmed black man in darkened stairwell

By Jamiles Lartey

Mary Altaffer/AP
New York police officer Peter Liang shot an unarmed man dead in a darkened stairwell of public housing he was patrolling.

The NYPD officer who shot and killed an unarmed man in a stairwell was convicted of manslaughter Thursday by a Kings County jury. The officer, 28-year-old Peter Liang, held his head in his hands as the foreman read back the charges. Liang was also found guilty of official misconduct in relation to the fatal shooting of Akai Gurley in November 2014.

The manslaughter charge carries up to 15 years in prison. Liang’s sentencing is set for 14 April. He was fired from the force after the ruling, an NYPD spokesman said.

Kings County district attorney Ken Thompson said the ruling demonstrated that “no matter where you live in Brooklyn, your life matters”.

Scott Rynecki, the attorney representing the Gurley family, said after the decision that “no one is here rejoicing at the fact that this officer was convicted ... but the message was sent ... that if a police officer does something wrong their actions will be held accountable and will be held accountable in a court of law”. Rynecki is representing the family in a civil suit.

In a statement Pat Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, said: “This bad verdict will have a chilling effect on police officers across the city because it criminalizes a tragic accident.”

Before coming to their decision, the jury re-listened to the 911 call placed by a resident in the building after the shooting and handled Liang’s service weapon, even taking turns pulling its trigger. The prosecution argued during the trial that NYPD weapons are modified by the department to be more difficult to fire than the same handgun off the shelf, and that this makes an accidental trigger pull extremely unlikely.

During closing arguments Tuesday, prosecutor Joe Alexis held Liang’s service weapon in front of the jury and said a finger along the side of the gun would not slip off and “find its way to the trigger” accidentally. “Fear and panic cannot excuse recklessness, especially on the part of a highly trained police officer,” Alexis added.

Liang’s defense attorney, Robert Brown, concluded his two-hour closing argument Monday by calling Gurley’s death “a terrible tragedy” and not a crime.

The charges stemmed from an incident on 20 November 2014 when Liang and his partner Shaun Landau were conducting a “vertical patrol” in a public housing building in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York. Liang entered a darkened stairwell with his weapon drawn and, according to his testimony Monday, he was startled by a noise and his gun “just went off”.

The bullet ricocheted off a wall and struck 28-year-old Gurley, who had just entered the stairwell, in the chest.

Throughout the trial Liang’s defense repeatedly called such a strike “a million to one”, both due to the fact that the bullet bounced off a wall and the likelihood of someone walking in the stairwell at exactly that time. During his testimony Liang called it “rare” for people to be walking in the stairwells at night. The prosecution countered during cross-examination that the very reason vertical patrols are conducted is because people enter those stairwells.

The prosecution attempted to convince jurors that not only did Liang behave recklessly with his weapon, but that by failing to try and provide CPR to Gurley as he laid dying Liang violated his duty to serve and protect. Liang’s defense team argued that he was in shock after he realized his bullet had struck someone. “I was panicking so much, I couldn’t process it in my head,” Liang said Monday.

Gurley’s companion Melissa Butler ended up attempting the procedure, while a neighbor shouted instructions from emergency medical services.

Liang estimated on the stand Monday that he had conducted hundreds of vertical patrols in his short career. Throughout his testimony he struggled to maintain his composure, frequently turning away from the courtroom audience.

A first-generation Chinese American, Liang grew up in Chinatown and speaks Cantonese. Liang, who is married, joined the police academy after a stint as a TSA agent, and one of the assignments he requested upon graduation was the transit arm of the NYPD.

Instead he was assigned as an impact officer in East New York, one of the highest crime neighborhoods in the city. The NYPD’s controversial Project Impact assigns rookie officers to foot patrol in higher crime precincts.

Gurley, whose family relocated to the US from St Thomas when he was a baby, landed in the neighborhood’s Louis Pink houses in 2010 when he moved in with girlfriend Kimberly Ballinger. The two were engaged when he died and have a daughter, Akaila, who is now three years old.

“I thank the jury so much for coming back with a guilty verdict,” Ballinger said Thursday night, echoing the sentiments of Gurley’s mother Sylvia Palmer who thanked God and the District Attorney’s office for the outcome.

Throughout the trial the courtroom audience was cleaved by race. On one side sat mostly black friends and family of Gurley; on the other side sat mostly Chinese American family and supporters of Liang. Some in the Chinese community, like Doug Lee, who founded the Greater New York Coalition to Support Officer Liang, felt that the officer’s indictment only came because of a climate of discontent with law enforcement. “Peter Liang was made a scapegoat for the association with Mike Brown and Eric Garner,” Lee said.

The Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, which has been organizing around issues of police brutality and misconduct for more than 30 years, called this attitude “misguided”. Executive director Cathy Dang said police violence is a systemic issue and that “Peter Liang is a part of that system and needs to be held accountable”.