8:35 p.m. | Feb. 11, 2016
By COLBY HAMILTON and AZI PAYBARAH
Peter Liang — the police officer who in 2014 shot blindly into a darkened public housing stairwell in Brooklyn where Akai Gurley was standing, striking and killing him — was found guilty of 2nd degree manslaughter and other charges Thursday.
The verdict from the mostly white jury of seven men and five woman came after nearly three days of deliberation.
Liang and his partner Shaun Landau were conducting a vertical patrol in the Pink Houses in East New York on November 20, 2014, when the duo began to enter a stairwell. Below them, at the same time, Gurley and his girlfriend opened the door. The noise, according to testimony during the trial, startled Liang at the top the stairs. He shot, and the bullet ricocheted and struck Gurley.
The moments after were key to the trial. Landau said the argument over what to do next lasted over four minutes; Liang said 45 seconds.
The trial came down to whether Liang was culpable for the mistake, and represented a large gamble by Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson. Thompson's decision to pursue the case came four months after Gurley’s death, and in the wake of a wave of protests and growing concern over the deaths of unarmed people, particularly black males, in New York and across the nation. Thompson’s indictment of Liang came just months after a Staten Island jury failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer accused of applying the chokehold that led to the death of Eric Garner earlier that year.
In an interview aired on NY1 after the verdict, Thompson downplayed the impact national unrest over police-involved shootings played in bringing the case.
“This officer was indicted not because of what’s happening in other parts of the country, but because of what happened in that stairwell,” Thompson said. “He took out his gun, and he [pulled] that trigger, and he killed an innocent man, and he had to be held accountable. It’s that simple.
Gurley’s death had immediately been called an accident by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. “It appears to be an accidental discharge — no intention to strike anybody,” Bratton said at the time. He also referred to Gurley as a “total innocent.”
Questions were raised about why Liang had his gun withdrawn while doing vertical patrols with his partner in NYCHA's Pink Houses. Bratton had told reporters “We leave that decision as to when to take a firearm out at the discretion of the officers based on what they are encountering or believe they may encounter … So there is not a specific prohibition against taking a firearm out ... [but] an officer would have to justify” their reason for doing so.
At the time of the shooting, the NYPD had announced plans to have more experienced officers patrol high-crime areas, including vertical patrols of stairwells in NYCHA buildings.
In a statement after the verdict Thursday night, Mayor Bill de Blasio said “The death of Akai Gurley was a tragedy. The jury has now spoken, and we respect their decision. We hope today's outcome brings some closure to the Gurley family after this painful event.”
Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch, meanwhile, said “we are very disappointed in the verdict” and said he believed that “the jury came to an absolutely wrong decision.”
“This was a terrible and tragic accident and not a crime,” Lynch said in a statement. “This bad verdict will have a chilling effect on police officers across the city because it criminalizes a tragic accident.”
During his post-verdict interview, Thompson defended the police, saying Liang’s verdict was “not a conviction of the entire NYPD.”
“It’s the greatest police department in the world. It’s the conviction of one officer. At the end of the day Akai Gurley’s life mattered, that’s what this verdict means,” the DA said.
According to reports, Thompson was on hand for the jury’s verdict, which was delivered to a near-silent court room.
An NYPD spokesman said Liang has been dismissed from the force. He’s scheduled to return to court in April for sentencing. Liang faces a maximum sentence of five to 15 years in prison
— Additional reporting by Laura Nahmias.