BROOKLYN (CN) – A New York City police officer “recklessly pulled out his gun for no reason” before shooting the unarmed Akai Gurley in the stairwell of an East New York housing complex, a prosecutor told the jury Monday.
The start of opening arguments brought the families of Gurley and his killer, NYPD officer Peter Liang, to the large criminal courthouse filled with dozens of reporters and spectators.
Representing the first time a New York City police officer has gone to trial over the shooting of an unarmed black man in the wake of nationwide movement Black Lives Matter, a strong turnout was expected.
In stark contrast to the spectators, the jurors weighing Liang’s fate were overwhelming white, and they heard sharply different interpretations of mostly uncontested facts as opening arguments began.
Assistant District Attorney Marc Fliedner began by taking the jury back to Nov. 20, 2014, the last day of Gurley’s life.
“He should be alive,” the prosecutor said of Gurley. “He should be here, but he is dead because he crossed paths with Peter Liang.”
Gurley had been visiting his girlfriend, Melissa Butler, at the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York, where Liang and his partner Shaun Landau had been assigned on a “vertical patrol” of the building, a regular – if controversial – feature of life of New York City public housing.
After leaving the elevator, the officer entered the stairwell to find the lights out on the seventh and eighth floors.
“The stairwell was dark,” Fliedner said. “Neither of the men could see anything.”
With his 8 mm Glock drawn in one hand and a flashlight in the other, Liang opened fire in the dimly lit stairwell. A bullet that ricocheted off a concrete wall struck Gurley through his heart and into his liver.
Liang’s defense attorney Rae Koshetz, who spent 14 years as the NYPD’s deputy commissioner, portrayed her client as a confused two-year rookie who panicked after his gun “accidentally discharged.”
Prosecutors, on the other hand, promised that expert testimony would show that the police-issued weapon made it more difficult to fire, and the tragedy would never have occurred without Liang repeatedly violating his training before and after the shooting.
Fliedner noted that, instead of helping Gurley as he lay upon the “cold, 5th floor landing,” Liang callously “whined and moaned about how he would get fired.”
Kneeling on the courtroom floor as he gestured to the imaginary body of Gurley, Fliedner said Liang never looked into his “dying eyes” or “even [tried] to touch him.”
Neither Liang nor his partner radioed other police or called 911, a fact that the officers blame on the poor reception in the building.
Help arrived only after Butler, the girlfriend, ran with bloody hands to the doorstep of her neighbor, Melissa Lopez, and pleaded for the other woman to call 911.
Jurors heard a recording of that call recording later in the day as Lopez testified.
The tape captures Lopez shouting to put pressure on Gurley’s bullet wound with a towel, and instructing Butler on how to deliver CPR.
“Mama, put pressure on him,” Lopez said in the recording. “They’re on their way.”
Though both officers were trained in CPR, neither of the officers offered to assist Butler before emergency personnel arrived, prosecutor Fliedner said.
Defense attorney Koshetz attributed this to Liang having been “beside himself,” “shaken” and “terrified.” Indeed the officer also had to be taken by an ambulance.
“His ears are ringing,” Koshetz said. “He’s hyperventilating.”
Lopez, the neighbor, contradicted that account in her testimony by repeatedly describing Liang as unemotional.
“I didn’t see neither one of them doing anything,” she testified.
Lopez added that Liang had not been crying, and had no trouble walking up to her to ask for her address.
After more police arrived, Lopez said that she overheard Liang tell a superior officer: “I shot him accidentally.”
With political controversy surrounding the case, defense attorney Koshetz reminded the jury that the NYPD is “not on trial” and the case is “not a referendum” on police violence. The attorney then quoted a a line about nonviolent resistance to segregated buses in “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.”
“As Martin Luther King famously said, ‘The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind,'” she said.
Nicholas Heyward, whose son was killed by police in 1994, was among several trial spectators who do not think the jury gives an integrated representation of Brooklyn.
“I mean, this is New York City,” 58-year-old Heyward told reporters. “Why is it [a nearly] all-white jury? That’s not a jury of Akai Gurley’s peers. Come on, now! How did that even happen?”
Heyward’s son, Nicholas Heyward Jr., had been 13 years old in 1994 when an officer shot him in a stairwell of the Gowanus Houses.
Media outlets reported that the boy had been carrying an 18-inch toy rifle. The officer who killed young Heyward was never indicted in connection to the shooting.
Gurley’s aunt Hertencia Peterson had little to say about the trial in the prepared statement that she delivered memorializing her nephew outside the courthouse.
“Nothing in the world can ever bring you back, but what the family wants is for the one that took your time to be held accountable, to fight for justice, to let everyone know that you had goals, dreams, and most of all you were loved,” Peterson said.
Justice Danny Chun is presiding over of the trial, which is expected to last between three and four weeks.
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