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Officer Peter Liang convicted in fatal shooting of Akai Gurley in Brooklyn

By Sarah Maslin Nir,

A New York City police officer was convicted of manslaughter on Thursday for killing an unarmed man who was hit by a ricocheting bullet fired from the officer’s gun in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project in a case that highlighted concerns over police accountability.

The officer, Peter Liang, and his partner were conducting a so-called vertical patrol on Nov. 20, 2014, inside the Louis H. Pink Houses in the East New York neighborhood. At one point, Officer Liang opened a door into an unlighted stairwell and his gun went off. The bullet glanced off a wall and hit Akai Gurley, 28, who was walking down the stairs with his girlfriend, and pierced his heart.

Mr. Liang, a rookie officer who had graduated from the Police Academy the year before the shooting, was also found guilty of official misconduct for failing to help Mr. Gurley as he lay on a fifth-floor landing. Mr. Gurley’s girlfriend, Melissa Butler, had testified that while she knelt in a pool of his blood trying to resuscitate him, the officer stopped briefly but did not help before proceeding down the stairs.

The verdict, delivered in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, comes amid a national debate on the policing of black neighborhoods after a string of killings of unarmed black men by police officers. And the jury’s decision is a rare instance in which a police officer was convicted of killing someone in the line of duty.

Akai Gurley’s family, including his mother, Sylvia Palmer, center, after Officer Peter Liang was found guilty of manslaughter on Thursday. (Credit Bryan R. Smith for The New York Times)
Akai Gurley’s family, including his mother, Sylvia Palmer, center, after Officer Peter Liang was found guilty of manslaughter on Thursday. (Credit Bryan R. Smith for The New York Times)

The jury deliberated a little more than two days before reaching a verdict. The Police Department said soon after the verdict that it had fired Officer Liang.

After hearing the verdict, Officer Liang bowed his head and sank his face into his hands. His lawyer placed a hand on the officer’s back. The officer left the courthouse without speaking to reporters.

“Clearly it’s a terrible tragedy Mr. Gurley died,” said one of Officer Liang’s lawyers, Robert E. Brown, who had described the shooting as a freakish accident. “My client feels terrible about it, but what he did wasn’t a crime.”

The jury’s decision elicited tears from Mr. Gurley’s family and friends. They huddled in a group embrace, crying, swaying and offering words of relief and thanks.

Mr. Liang, 28, faces up to 15 years in prison on the second-degree manslaughter charge when he is sentenced on April 14. Most of the jurors left the courtroom quickly, but one juror, who declined to give his name, said in a brief interview that the decision had been “very, very, very difficult.”

“I’ve got to face my family; half of them are cops,” he added.

The prosecutors portrayed Officer Liang as acting recklessly in pulling out his weapon and firing inside a public space where residents come and go. They also accused him of being more concerned over what the shooting would mean for his career than in abiding by police rules and trying to help Mr. Gurley, a father to two young girls, after he had been shot.

Mr. Liang’s lawyers had argued that he was in a state of shock over what he had done; they said he felt unqualified to perform CPR, as is required of an officer under such circumstances, because he received poor training at the Police Academy. His partner, Officer Shaun Landau, who was provided immunity from prosecution, also testified about receiving little training. He said Officer Liang sank to the floor, in tears, shortly after realizing he had shot someone. The prosecution introduced a radio call Mr. Liang made into evidence, saying he did not call for an ambulance. The defense said the dispatch was tantamount to a call for help for Mr. Gurley.

In a statement on Thursday night, Mayor Bill de Blasio said: “The death of Akai Gurley was a tragedy. 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.”

Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the city’s largest police union, denounced the verdict, saying it would have “a chilling effect on police officers across the city because it criminalizes a tragic accident.”

And Ed Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said that Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, “who so often brags of the evolution of policing, now needs to suspend the efforts of vertical patrol and re-evaluate his policy.”

The Brooklyn district attorney, Ken Thompson, told reporters that as the verdict was read he turned to Sylvia Palmer, Mr. Gurley’s mother, and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

“I told his mother, ‘I’m sorry,’” he said. “I’m sorry we were in that courtroom at that point.”

Mr. Thompson made it clear that the conviction “was is in no way a conviction of the New York City Police Department.”

“What we are saying, and what we said in this case, is that we have to have police officers who follow the training they’re given,” he added.

The shooting came at a tense moment in relations between the police and the city’s black population — four months earlier, a Staten Island man, Eric Garner, died after he was placed in a chokehold by a police officer who had been trying to help arrest Mr. Garner for selling loose cigarettes.

More broadly, Mr. Gurley’s death became linked by many to the string of killings across the country of unarmed black men at the hands of the police.

In New York, officers are rarely indicted by grand juries, let alone put on trial, for deaths that occur in the line of duty — no officer has been charged in the death of Mr. Garner in 2014.

In 2005, an undercover police officer was convicted by a State Supreme Court judge for killing an unarmed African immigrant, Ousmane Zongo, 43, during a raid inside a Chelsea warehouse. And in a case that set off protests and widespread condemnation, three detectives were found not guilty of all charges in 2008 after a nonjury trial in the death of Sean Bell, 23, who was killed on his wedding day in Queens by police gunfire.

In opening statements, a lawyer for the defense, Rae Downes Koshetz, strove to make clear that the trial was “not a referendum on policing in the United States.” The defense also argued that patrolling housing projects is one of the most dangerous assignments for a police officer, a point that seemed to be driven home during the trial when two officers conducting such a patrol inside a Bronx housing project were shot and wounded.

The key moment of the trial was perhaps the emotional testimony of Mr. Liang himself, who said he was startled when he heard a sound in the stairwell, causing him to flinch before his weapon fired. He said he did not realize anyone had been hit until he went down the stairs to look for the bullet. As he described finding Mr. Gurley lying wounded, Mr. Liang turned his back to the courtroom and started to cry.

Mr. Gurley’s relatives, many of whom sat in the front row of the courtroom every day of the more than two-week trial, have viewed Mr. Gurley’s death as inextricably linked to the issues of how black communities are the victims of excessive and unjust policing. Officer Liang, who is Chinese-American, has strong support in the Chinese community, and his mother and several members of his family have attended much of the trial.

His mother declined to comment after the verdict.

Outside the courthouse in Downtown Brooklyn, one of Mr. Gurley’s aunts, Hertencia Petersen, stood next to his mother, while behind them, his stepfather swayed back and forth, at times raising his palms skyward as if in praise. Ms. Petersen said she was moved that the jury had convicted a police officer, adding that the guilty verdict was an outcome “that has not come down in how long?”

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