Wall Street Journal

Upd. Feb. 11, 2016 10:04 p.m.


NYPD Officer Convicted of Manslaughter

Officer Peter Liang is found guilty in death of Akai Gurley; faces up to 15 years

By REBECCA DAVIS O’BRIEN

A New York Police Department officer was found guilty Thursday of manslaughter in the 2014 shooting death of an unarmed man in the stairwell of a Brooklyn public-housing complex.

A jury in state Supreme Court in Brooklyn convicted Officer Peter Liang on the most serious charge he faced in the death of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, who was killed when a bullet fired from the rookie officer’s gun struck him in the chest.

Officer Liang, 28 years old, faces a maximum prison sentence of 15 years on the manslaughter charge, but the court could decide not to incarcerate him. He was also found guilty of a single count of official misconduct, a misdemeanor. Sentencing was set for April 14.

“I was very happy with the verdict,” said Mr. Gurley’s mother, Sylvia Palmer,

Robert Brown, a lawyer for Mr. Liang, said the verdict “feels absolutely terrible.” If a police officer can’t take his gun out while patrolling a dangerous area, he said, “we’re making a very difficult job even more difficult.”

Mr. Brown said he would immediately make a motion to set aside the verdict, followed by an appeal if necessary.

One juror, who declined to give his name, said the decision was “very, very, very difficult.”

The juror said he comes from a family of police officers. “I’ve got to face my family,” he said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said he hoped the verdict provides closure for Mr. Gurley’s family. “The jury has now spoken, and we respect its decision,” he said.“I was very happy with the verdict,” said Mr. Gurley’s mother, Sylvia Palmer,

Robert Brown, a lawyer for Mr. Liang, said the verdict “feels absolutely terrible.” If a police officer can’t take his gun out while patrolling a dangerous area, he said, “we’re making a very difficult job even more difficult.”

Mr. Brown said he would immediately make a motion to set aside the verdict, followed by an appeal if necessary.

One juror, who declined to give his name, said the decision was “very, very, very difficult.”

The juror said he comes from a family of police officers. “I’ve got to face my family,” he said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said he hoped the verdict provides closure for Mr. Gurley’s family. “The jury has now spoken, and we respect its decision,” he said.

The guilty verdict automatically results in Officer Liang’s termination from the force, according to NYPD policy. Officer Liang has been on modified duty since Mr. Gurley’s death.

As the verdict was read, Officer Liang appeared stunned, then leaned over the table with his head in his hands. One of his lawyers put her hand on his back.

Escorted by police-union members, Officer Liang left the courthouse and got into a black sedan without commenting. His family members also declined to comment.

Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the city’s main police union, said he believes the jury came to an “absolutely wrong decision.”

“This was a terrible and tragic accident and not a crime,” he said. “This bad verdict will have a chilling effect on police officers across the city because it criminalizes a tragic accident.”

Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson said he disagreed with any suggestion that the verdict would have a chilling effect on police. “This conviction is in no way a conviction of the New York City Police Department,” he said. “We know that their job is one of the most dangerous jobs.”

Mr. Thompson said Brooklyn was coming together Thursday to “affirm that Akai Gurley’s life mattered.”

The conviction marked a victory for prosecutors, who accused Officer Liang of acting with criminal recklessness by keeping his finger on the trigger while on patrol. Prosecutors argued that Officer Liang delayed reporting the shot for fear of losing his job and didn’t provide first aid to Mr. Gurley.

Officer Liang, who tearfully testified in his own defense earlier this week, said his gun went off by accident when he was startled by a sound in the pitch-black stairwell. He and his partner, Officer Shaun Landau, were conducting a routine patrol at the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York on Nov. 20, 2014, when the shooting occurred.

Mr. Gurley’s shooting came in the months following the police-involved deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, instances in which no charges were brought against police officers by state grand juries.

Criminal trials of NYPD officers who kill someone in the line of duty are very rare, and convictions are even rarer.

The last NYPD officer to be found guilty in a shooting death of a civilian wasBryan Conroy, who was convicted in 2005 by a Manhattan judge of criminally negligent homicide in the killing of Ousman Zongo, a 43-year-old unarmed African immigrant. The officer was acquitted on a more severe count of second-degree manslaughter.

Mr. Conroy, who was working undercover when he shot Mr. Zongo during a warehouse raid in Chelsea, was sentenced to five years’ probation. He was automatically fired from the NYPD.

In Officer Liang’s case, evidence presented in the trial showed that the bullet ricocheted off a cinder block wall and hit Mr. Gurley.

Officer Liang and his partner told the jury that they didn’t initially realize that anybody had been hit. Minutes after the gun fired, the officers said, they found Mr. Gurley collapsed on the floor several stories below.

Lawyers for Officer Liang said he was in shock after realizing that Mr. Gurley had been shot, but they also maintained that he had followed his training.

The trial shed light on the NYPD’s first-aid and firearms training, and how the department instructs officers to perform so-called vertical patrols of public-housing complexes, which were described by witnesses as particularly dangerous for both residents and officers.

In closing arguments Tuesday, Assistant District Attorney Joseph Alexis said Officer Liang, who had “sworn to protect” the people of New York, violated his training, fired his gun “and killed an innocent man,” then tried to cover his tracks.

Mr. Alexis told the jury that Officer Liang didn’t intend to kill Mr. Gurley, 28, who was in the stairwell with his girlfriend. Still, he said, “This is not an accident. This is recklessness. This is an officer who couldn’t properly handle his gun.”

Officer Liang’s partner, Officer Landau, remains on modified duty and is subject to an internal affairs investigation. He was given immunity from prosecution by the district attorney’s office in exchange for his testimony at Officer Liang’s trial.

—Pervaiz Shallwani and Thomas MacMillan contributed to this article.

Write to Rebecca Davis O’Brien at Rebecca.OBrien@wsj.com