Rookie cop convicted of killing unarmed father avoids jail time
04/26/2016 3:22 pm PDT
Anger on the streets of New York City: Outrage as a rookie cop gets probation for the shooting death of an unarmed man.
Former New York City Police Officer Peter Liang accidentally shot and killed Akai Gurley, the father of a little girl, on Nov. 20, 2014.
The tragic incident fueled the flames of discontent about police shootings.
Gurley was killed in what New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton calls a coincidence -- he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"The deceased is based on our investigation a total innocent who just happened to be in that hallway," said Bratton.
The shooting occurred in what some call the worst slum in the city: the Louis Pink Houses, located in a rough section of Brooklyn. The New York Post calls the Pink Houses "the dark and deadly hellhole houses."
The housing project might be the most dangerous beat for any cop in the NYPD. Liang and his partner were conducting what's called a "vertical patrol." That's when cops start on the top floor, stealthily going down the steps floor to floor, peeking into hallways, trying to stop crime in its tracks.
The stairwell was dark and Liang had his gun drawn for his protection. Gurley had just gone through the door with his girlfriend.
Liang claims he was startled and his gun accidentally fired. The bullet ricochets off the concrete walls, hitting Gurley in the chest, killing him. Liang is charged with six counts, including second-degree manslaughter.
And now two communities in the big city are outraged: the African-American community, and the Chinese-American, calling Liang a scapegoat.
"This man had just shot an innocent man and he never even knelt to try and fix what he had done," said Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Marc Fliedner.
Fliedner, the prosecutor, delivers an emotional opening statement at the trial. He says after the shooting Liang calls a supervisor instead of helping Gurley, leaving his girlfriend Melissa Butler to perform CPR. A neighbor rushes to help and calls 911.
Liang's lawyer says her client didn't help because he was in shock.
"The gun accidentally discharges. He's beside himself, in a state of shock," said Rae Koshetz, Liang's attorney. "And things are about to become much, much worse."
After 17 hours of deliberation the jury reaches a verdict: Guilty.
Liang is emotional, covering his face, as he could be looking at 15 years in prison.
But he has an unlikely ally: the Brooklyn District Attorney.
In a stunning recommendation, District Attorney Ken Thompson says: "Mr. Liang has no prior criminal history and poses no future threat to public safety. Because his incarceration is not necessary to protect the public, and due to the unique circumstances of this case, a prison sentence is not warranted."
"His recommendation is ridiculous," said Gurley's Aunt Hertensia Peterson, speaking on behalf of the family. "Akai is being murdered over and over and over again -- and this has added salt to the wound."
At his sentencing, Liang gulps nervously right before his turn to speak: "I wish I could undo what happened. My life has forever changed."
The judge sentences Liang to five years' probation and eight hundred hours of community service. And in a surprise development, he reduces the original charge of manslaughter to criminally negligent homicide.
"When you have an officer who is found guilty of manslaughter, but the judge reduced to criminally negligent homicide, he is now a convicted felon," said Gurley family attorney Scott Rynecki.
But there's more controversy behind the scenes of this case.
"It was a very tough decision," said Michael Vargas, a juror in Liang's trial. Vargas, Juror Number Nine, allegedly failed to disclose his estranged father was convicted of manslaughter, something that might have disqualified him from jury service.
The judge said there was no misconduct on Vargas's part, and has denied Liang a new trial.
There are no winners here. A young father is dead through no fault of his own, a rookie cop is fired from his job, and a city's blood is boiling as another police shooting tears through the heart of New York.