Wall Street Journal

Upd. March 23, 2016 9:40 p.m.


Brooklyn D.A. Recommends No Prison Time for Former NYPD Officer Liang

The officer was convicted of manslaughter in the 2014 shooting death of Akai Gurley, who was unarmed

By PERVAIZ SHALLWANI and REBECCA DAVIS O’BRIEN

KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Peter Liang walked to the courtroom before a readback of the charges against him in the shooting death of Akai Gurley in February.

The Brooklyn district attorney’s office asked a state judge Wednesday to spare former New York Police Department Officer Peter Liang prison time in the 2014 shooting death of an unarmed man in the stairwell of a Brooklyn public-housing complex.

In a memo to Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun, District Attorney Kenneth Thompson recommended that instead of state prison time, Mr. Liang be sentenced to five years’ probation including six months’ house arrest, where he would wear an electronic bracelet, and 500 hours of community service.

Justice Chun doesn’t have to follow the district attorney’s request, but prosecutors’ recommendations typically play a strong role in sentencing decisions.

Mr. Liang, who was convicted in February of manslaughter for accidentally firing the shot that killed 28-year-old Akai Gurley, is scheduled to be sentenced on April 14. He faces up to 15 years in prison.

Mr. Thompson said that while Mr. Liang was convicted because his actions led to the death of an innocent man, “there is no evidence, however, that he intended to kill or injure Mr. 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,” Mr. Thompson said.

“The sentence that I have requested is just and fair under the circumstances of this case,” he said. “This tragic case has always been about justice and not about revenge.”

Mr. Liang’s appellate lawyers—who have filed a motion to have the verdict overturned—said the officer is innocent but called Mr. Thompson’s recommendation “exceptional.”

“Although we disagree with Mr. Thompson on the fundamental issue of Mr. Liang’s culpability, he deserves praise for his dispassionate and courageous decision that incarceration is not called for in this case,” lawyers Paul Shechtman and Gabriel Chin said in a statement.

Mr. Gurley’s family said they were outraged.

“District Attorney Thompson was elected on the promise that he would not allow officers to act as if they are above the law,” the family said in a statement. “His sentencing recommendation is a betrayal of that promise.”

Kenneth Palmer, Mr. Gurley’s stepfather, said he felt awful about the recommendation. “What is justice? That’s my question right now.”

“If it was your son, what would you think?” he added.

The reaction was more measured from Scott Rynecki, the attorney for Mr. Gurley’s girlfriend, Kimberly Ballinger, who witnessed the shooting. He said Mr. Thompson’s office “accomplished what many others have not. They were able to obtain an indictment and a conviction of a police officer for the wrongful shooting and death of an innocent man.”

Mr. Liang and his partner, Shaun Landau, both rookies, were on a routine patrol at the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York on Nov. 20, 2014, when a bullet fired from Mr. Liang’s gun ricocheted off a wall and struck Mr. Gurley in the chest. Both Mr. Liang and his partner, who testified at the trial, were fired after the guilty verdict.

Mr. Liang testified that his gun went off by accident when he was startled by a sound in a dark stairwell. He said neither he nor his partner realized a bullet had hit anyone until minutes later, when they found Mr. Gurley bleeding on a landing below.

    
KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL  
Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, center, in February.  

But prosecutors said Liang had acted recklessly by putting his finger on the trigger when he entered the stairwell. They argued that he delayed reporting the gunshot and failed to administer first aid.

Mr. Gurley’s shooting came in the months following the police-involved deaths of other unarmed black men, in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, in which grand juries declined to indict police officers.

The rare conviction of a police officer for an on-duty shooting was met with disbelief among law-enforcement officials, who said it would have a chilling effect on policing.

On Wednesday, Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the union representing officers, said the reasons that Mr. Thompson gave for not seeking prison time “are the very same reasons that the officer should not have been indicted in the first place.”

The verdict angered some in the Asian-American community, who felt the prosecution was racially motivated. A week after the verdict, about 10,000 protesters rallied in New York in support of Mr. Liang. Supporters of Mr. Liang have implored Justice Chun to either overturn the verdict or to give Mr. Liang a probationary sentence.

Mr. Thompson said his decision boiled down to the fact that Mr. Liang had no criminal history and doesn’t pose a threat to public safety.

“His incarceration is not necessary to protect the public, and due to the unique circumstances of this case, a prison sentence is not warranted,” Mr. Thompson said.

Bryan Conroy, the last NYPD officer to be found guilty in a shooting death of a civilian, was sentenced to five years’ probation after being convicted in Manhattan of criminally negligent homicide.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor, said that while Mr. Liang may not receive prison time, “The conviction itself is arguably monumental because it’s a police officer.”

“This is society saying a life can’t be taken without an accounting for that life,” Mr. O’Donnell said.

At the Pink Houses, the district attorney’s recommendation was met with anger. Resident Angela Burroughs, 47, said the prosecution of Mr. Liang now seems like a token gesture to appease critics.

“I do think there should be a consequence of his action,” she said. “Six months’ house arrest is ridiculous. It’s insulting.”

—Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Thomas MacMillan contributed to this article.

Write to Pervaiz Shallwani at pervaiz.shallwani@wsj.com and Rebecca Davis O’Brien at Rebecca.OBrien@wsj.com