Updated: February 12, 2016, 7:43 AM
BY THOMAS TRACY, CHRISTINA CARREGA-WOODBY, JOHN MARZULLI, DENIS SLATTERY, STEPHEN REX BROWN
|NYPD Officer Peter Liang becomes emotional as his guilty verdict was read in Brooklyn Supreme Court Thursday evening.|
The rookie NYPD cop who gunned down innocent and unarmed Akai Gurley in a Brooklyn housing project was convicted Thursday of manslaughter.
The shocking verdict was a powerful message from the jury that the public’s opinion on police killings has radically changed in the wake of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Michael Brown and other tragedies around the country.
The tension was palpable and a heavy silence filled the Brooklyn courtroom as the jury returned with the verdict just before 7 p.m.
Gurley’s family sat in the front row, as they had every day of the two-week-long trial.
“I want to thank God. The DA was a man of his word,” said Kimberly Ballinger, the mother of Gurley’s daughter. “And I thank the jurors so much.”
“We’re not rejoicing,” Gurley’s aunt Hertencia Petersen told the Daily News. “But it’s about being accountable. It’s about a girl who will never know her father.”
A look of disbelief spread across Officer Peter Liang’s face as the foreman issued the jury’s decision. The convicted cop quickly buried his head in his hands as an attorney at his side placed her hand on his back. Several people in the crowded room gasped.
Liang, also convicted of official misconduct, remains free on bail and left the courthouse without comment. He faces up to 15 years in prison when he’s sentenced April 14. Liang is the first NYPD cop to be convicted of a police-involved shooting in a decade.
|Police officer Peter Liang reacts as the verdict is read during his trial on charges in the shooting death of Akai Gurley.|
Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson said the verdict “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. It’s as simple as that.”
“This has to do with who are we here in Brooklyn. 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,” Thompson said.
Gurley’s mother, Sylvia Palmer, was overcome with emotion as she spoke outside the courthouse.
“I was very happy,” she said. “I was very happy with the verdict.”
|BYRON SMITH FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS|
|Akai Gurley (l.) was shot in a stairwell of the Pink Houses in Brooklyn. Peter Liang (r.) leaves the courtroom after the jury's verdict on Thursday.|
“I want to thank the district attorney’s office,” she said as she huddled with other relatives against the biting cold. “The entire staff did a very good job of presenting the evidence. I’m just happy. I am happy with the verdict.”
“The death of Akai Gurley was a tragedy,” Mayor de Blasio said in a statement. “The jury has now spoken, and we respect its decision. We hope today’s outcome brings some closure to the Gurley family after this painful event.”
On the day he was killed, Gurley had opted to take the stairs from the seventh floor because the elevator was not working in the Pink Houses yet again.
The father of a 2-year-old girl and his friend, Melissa Butler, walked into an unlit stairwell. The poor lighting was another common, documented complaint from residents in the NYCHA building.
One floor above, Liang and his partner, Shaun Landau, were just beginning a so-called vertical patrol in which they walked the stairs and checked out the roof — common areas for crime to occur.
Liang, who cried when he took the stand in his own defense, testified his finger was on the side of his drawn pistol as he entered the stairwell.
“I heard something on my left side ... It startled me (then) the gun just went off,” Liang testified during the trial.
|KEN MURRAY/NEW YORKDAILY NEWS|
|Kimberly Ballinger, girlfriend of Akai Gurley, speaks to the media outside Brooklyn Supreme Court after Thursday's verdict.|
The bullet ricocheted off a wall and struck Gurley in the chest.
The jury deliberated a little more than two days before reaching a verdict.
“I come from a family of cops. I have to face them tomorrow,” juror No. 9, Mike Vargas, said after leaving the courtroom. “They are here to protect us. It was a very tough decision.”
While in deliberations Thursday, jurors asked to hold Liang’s unloaded service weapon, as they had during the trial, feeling the weight of the gun and the pull of the trigger.
Liang said he initially thought he’d accidentally fired his weapon but not hit anyone. He and Landau bickered over who should report the screwup, and Liang eventually called his sergeant’s cell phone — instead of reporting it over the radio, which is recorded.
Liang realized the magnitude of his mistake when he saw Butler desperately trying to save Gurley’s life.
The two cops said they weren’t confident in their training to administering CPR — so they let Butler administer it instead.
“I didn’t know if I could do it better than her,” Liang said.
|THEODORE PARISIENNE FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS|
|Gurley was shot dead in a darkened stairwell at the Pink Houses on Nov. 20, 2014.|
The NYPD said Liang was dismissed, in keeping with policy, upon his conviction, and the department will now move forward with internal discipline against his partner.
Reactions to the verdict were mixed, as some condemned the decision and others applauded.
“We are very disappointed in the verdict and believe that the jury came to an absolutely wrong decision,” Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said. “This bad verdict will have a chilling effect on police officers across the city because it criminalizes a tragic accident.”
Esaw Garner, the widow of Staten Island police chokehold victim Eric Garner, was floored by the outcome of the trial.
“Wow,” she said. “That is phenomenal for (Gurley’s) family. I am happy for his family.”
|KEN MURRAY/NEW YORKDAILY NEWS|
|Akai Gurley's mother, Sylvia Palmer (r.), and stepfather, Kenneth Palmer (c.), leave court on Thursday.|
Ed Chan of the Chinese Action Network blasted the decision.
“This was not a conscious act,” he said. “When you do a trigger pull, slowly and deliberately with the pull on it, that’s different than if you got scared and pulled the trigger.”
Gurley’s death in the darkened stairwell of the Pink Houses led to increased scrutiny of vertical patrols, where NYPD officers scout for trouble in the stairwells of city-run buildings.
“It is clear that Peter Liang should never have had his gun out,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement. “He should never have been in that stairwell, and that we must look closely at so-called vertical patrols in public housing — a tactic that is far too similar to stop and frisk.”
But many argue the dangerous detail is an essential part of keeping NYCHA buildings safe.
Two NYPD cops were wounded in a shootout with a gunman after confronting a group of men drinking in the stairwell of a Bronx housing project just last week.
In the wake of the Gurley verdict, Ed Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, called on NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton to “suspend the efforts of vertical patrol and reevaluate his policy.
Catherine Collette, 76, who has lived in the Pink Houses for 35 years, expressed relief when she heard of the decision.
“Very good because he did nothing to save him. Everyone heard the thing go off,” Collette said. “I’m so glad because at least they hear you. They finally hear you. Justice served finally.”
Neighbor Crystal Lopez, who lives in the building where Gurley was killed, agreed.
“If you’re going to be doing a job, you shouldn’t be nervous or panicking and take somebody’s life for no reason,” the 25-year-old said. “You have to be sure of what you’re doing.”
Liang’s lawyers vowed to appeal.
“We don’t think the decision was supported by the facts or the law,” defense attorney Robert Brown 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.”
With Andy Mai, Edgar Sandoval, Kerry Burke