No Prison for Akai Gurley’s Killer in NYPD

     BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Rejecting an already lenient sentence recommendation, a judge sentenced former New York City police officer Peter Liang to probation and community service for recklessly shooting an unarmed black man to death.
     A jury had convicted Liang of manslaughter two months ago for killing 28-year-old Akai Gurley in the stairwell of East New York’s apartment building, the Pink Houses, on Nov. 20, 2014.
     Judge Danny Chun said at a sentencing hearing that Liang probably never contemplated walking out of the building a killer that day.
     “Shooting that gun and killing somebody was probably the last thing on his mind, and it probably wasn’t on his mind at all,” Chun said.
     Calling the shooting an accident, Chun reduced the conviction counts this afternoon to criminally negligent homicide and misconduct — charges that will still blot Liang’s record with a felony but will not land him in prison. The rookie officer, who turns 29 this year, will instead serve 800 hours of community service and five years of probation.
     The sentence was even lighter than the recommendation of Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, whose call for a non-jail sentence drew protests.
     Chun called Thompson’s recommendation “entirely and completely appropriate.”
     A relative of Liang’s wept in the front row of the courtroom as the judge announced his sentence, while Gurley’s aunt Hertencia Peterson shouted her dissatisfaction to the throngs of reporters waiting for her outside.
     “Akai Gurley’s life does not matter,” Petersen yelled. “Black lives do not matter. Justice will be served one way or another.”
     Across the street from the courthouse, several dozen Chinese-American protesters welcomed a lighter sentence, and waved signs labeling Liang a convenient “scapegoat” from their community for the sins of other, largely white NYPD officers against black and Latino New Yorkers.
     Liang, a son of a Chinese seamstress and cook, had helped his lawyers translate Cantonese into English at a young age while he chased what he described as an immigrant “dream come true” to join the police force.
     “The shot was accidental, and someone was dead,” he said. “I wish that I could change what happened.”
     Assistant District Attorney Joe Alexis, one of the prosecutors on the case, walked a fine line during his arguments, defending the charges that upset police unions and a sentence that outraged activists on both sides.
     “Peter Liang can’t be punished for the actions and sins of others who weren’t held accountable,” the prosecutor said. “Others have said that our sentencing recommendations evidence that Akai Gurley’s life doesn’t matter to us. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
     Liang and his partner Shaun Landau had been working a floor-by-floor sweep of the housing project, what the New York City Police Department calls a vertical patrol, when the former officer heard a sound in the unlit stairwell and fired his gun.
     The bullet ricocheted off a wall and hit Gurley in the chest, several floors below, killing him.
     Agreeing the shooting was unintentional, Alexis faulted Liang for ignoring his firearm training.
     “We believe that while Liang made a terrible mistake that night, his life is still redeemable,” he said.
     Alexis’ fellow prosecutors said the officer callously worried about his job when he saw what he had done.
     “I’m going to be fired,” Liang had whined when his partner told him to call in the shooting.
     Two of those closest to Gurley told the court that they are still living with their grief.
     “I’m hurting more than anything in this world,” his girlfriend Melissa Butler said. “Akai took his last breath and died in my hands.”
     Gurley’s domestic partner Kimberly Ballinger recounted a special visit from City Hall the day after shooting to offer condolences.
     “I will never forget the words of Mayor DeBlasio when he came into my home on Nov. 21, 2014, and told me that Akai was an innocent man who should still be alive,” she said.
     Liang won a sentencing delay last week amid new revelations regarding one of the jurors who convicted him.
     The court rejected arguments that juror Michael Vargas failed to disclose information that would prevent him from being an impartial juror, namely that his estranged father, Noberto Vargas Sr., served a seven-year for manslaughter.
     Liang’s attorney Paul Schachtman also pressed the juror about his social-media posts criticizing the police and accusing the government of intentionally provoking revolution.
     Emotions have run high around this case, one of several that prompted protests by thousands of people who snarled traffic on New York’s streets, highways, bridges and tunnels in late 2014.
     Police barricaded the courthouses and had a strict crowd-control regime in place, and a prosecutor made reference threats of riots for a non-jail sentence.
     “That is not who we are as a people,” Alexis said, speaking of violent protest.
     Liang’s attorney Schachtman borrowed a line from the prosecutor’s sentencing recommendation to sum up his client’s case.
     “There are no winners here,” Schachtman said.

%d bloggers like this: