“I just want justice for Akai,” Melissa Butler told the Amsterdam News, mere moments after her tearful and distraught testimony in the Akai Gurley case. She was the young woman in whose arms the unarmed man lay dying.
“Stay with me,” she had pleaded. “I’m getting you help.” She had tried to stop the bleeding from the gunshot wound in Gurley’s chest with a towel given to her by a neighbor who relayed instructions from a 911 operator on the phone.
Heart-wrenching testimony continued in the second week of the trial of officer Peter Liang, who admittedly shot and killed Gurley in the Pink Houses, an East New York public housing project, on Nov. 20, 2014.
On Thursday Jan. 28, during the third day of the manslaughter trial, police Lieutenant, Vitaliy Zelikov, who arrived at the scene that night said Liang was “frozen” as Gurley lay sprawled out, mortally wounded, on the 5th floor landing of 2747 Linden Blvd.
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny K. Chun asked Zelikov to clarify what he meant. “He was standing up and he was staring into space,” Zelikov responded. “Staring upward at the 5th floor. I took the officer out of the stairwell and into the hallway.” He said he also took Liang’s gun.
“I shot him by accident,” Zelokov quoted Liang as saying.
Also that day, prosecutors read segments from an official police training handbook, which showed that the two rookie cops failed to “aid Mr. Gurley by not performing CPR, even though [they] had been trained and required to do so.”
Monday, a Black juror called in to say he was in Kings County hospital with a knee injury. Judge Chun asked the lawyers if they wanted to go with an alternate. They all said no. So before, he adjourned court for the day, he called in the jury to tell them what was going on. Murmurs ran through observers, with even members of the mainstream media commenting among themselves: “It’s an all white jury? The juror in the hospital is the only Black juror?”
The visual was not lost on many of the Black spectators in the courtroom.
A source close the case assured the Amsterdam News that there are “seven men and five women—eight Caucasians, three Hispanics and one African-American.”
“This is what happens when our neighborhoods become gentrified, the jury pool does not reflect our community,” said Barron. “At the same time, when Black people are called they have to make the sacrifice so they can sit in on case like this. We have to weigh up realistic economic factors though.”
Tuesday morning, the prosecution’s key witness, Butler testified in detail how she braided Gurley’s hair in her apartment at the Pink Houses, and they took the stairs when the elevator took too long. She said after they entered the dimly lit Stairwell A on the 7th floor, “The door on the eighth floor opened and slammed into the wall, and a shot went off.”
Butler broke into tears as she recounted how they ran downstairs and she noticed Gurley had collapsed behind her on the 5th floor landing, and seeing the bullet wound in his chest while trying to revive him.
“I leaned over him in a puddle of blood and urine,” she said, sobbing. “I was telling him to stay with me, I am getting him help. He was conscious, but not responding. His eyes were bloodshot red. He stopped making any noises.”
Butler could not hide her pain, as her very audible weeping filled the packed State Supreme Court room, while she recounted the moments her boyfriend was shot and she administered desperate chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth. Several members of the jury seemed moved, as did the lawyers on both sides, courtroom spectators, and even members of the press. Then prosecutors played the 911 tape and a video showing Gurley’s bloodstained clothing lying in the crime scene hallway.
Some of the spectators also shed tears as Judge Chin recessed proceedings for several minutes so Butler could compose herself.
Butler returned and explained how she ran knocking on doors to get help, before attempting to resuscitate Gurley as neighbor, Melissa Lopez, relayed instructions from a 911 dispatcher. That 911 recording was again played in court.
“No,” Butler replied, when prosecutor’s asked if either cop attempted to save Gurley’s life.
A video was shown of the crime scene, with Gurley’s bloodied clothes crumpled up.
“We’re almost done,” Assistant District Attorney Joe Alexis said as Butler wept.
When Butler’s testimony finally over—cross direct and redirect—she was escorted out of the court by her lawyer, Roger Wareham, her mother and AssemblyMan Charles Barron.
Outside the State Supreme Court, Wareham told the Amsterdam News, “This was a very traumatic experience for Melissa, but she was strong, and she told the court exactly what happened
As for the trial itself, Wareham said that the “jury pool is a reflection of gentrified Brooklyn.”
“The defense certainly didn’t want more Black people on the jury,” he said, “but from what I understand, there weren’t that many Black people in the jury pool to begin with. In most of these cases, the police would go for a bench trial, but obviously felt that was not going to give him a free pass. Judge Chun has a reputation for being a hard, but fair judge, and the police don’t want fair. They want someone who is on their side.”
Back in court, a firearms expert described how police guns are modified to increase the amount of pressure required to shoot, to avoid accidental discharges.
NYPD firearms instructor, Detective Joe Agosto, testified that accidental gun discharges in the line of duty “occurred about 20 times a year.”
“Few were a result of malfunctions of the guns or triggers,” he said under cross-examination by Robert E. Brown, another lawyer for officer Liang. “The finger may gravitate toward [the trigger] in certain circumstances. There is a belief that there is a tendency to reassure yourself that the trigger is there, comparable to touching your wallet.”
In an unprecedented move, prosecutors had jurors hold Liang’s unloaded NYPD semi-automatic Glock 19 pistol, several of whom aimed the weapon at the back of the courtroom and pulled the trigger to feel its tension.
Defense attorneys cross-examined Agosto in an effort to show that the gun went off accidentally.
Liang’s partner and classmate from the police academy, Shaun Landau, who has been on administrative duty since the shooting, admitted that he had been granted immunity after previously testifying before the grand jury, and then recounted the tragic events. He explained how they were one floor above and entering the same dimly lit staircase. Officer Liang’s gun fired and the bullet ricocheted, striking Gurley in the chest one floor below.
“He pushed off the door with his right shoulder,” Landau testified. “The shot just went off. I said what the [expletive] happened? He said, ‘It went off by accident.’ I was in shock. The gun fired out of nowhere. He just said, ‘I’m fired.’”
Gurley’s supporters contend that Liang was improperly patrolling with his gun drawn, with finger on the trigger, and he squeezed off when startled by Gurley’s presence. Also he didn’t performed CPR because he was more concerned that he was going to lose his job than about assisting the dying Black man he shot.
Landau said he and Liang bickered for approximately four minutes about who was going to report the shooting to their supervisor, while Gurley bled to death. Landau said neither he nor Liang knew the bullet had hit someone until they heard crying. “We were just standing there,” Landau said, “Someone was laying down on the stairwell on his back. His eyes were open.”
The defense maintains the gun fired because of a defective trigger.
Liang has been charged with second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree assault, second-degree reckless endangerment and two counts of official misconduct.
Rae Downes Koshetz, a lawyer for Liang, has said he was in shock and unable to render aid.
This case will resume Thursday, when Landau will continue his testimony.
“Liang’s decision to patrol in a stairwell with his finger on the trigger of a gun was the choice that ended Gurley’s life, and that choice ultimately falls on him,” stated Gurley’s stepfather, Kenneth Palmer, in a media report. “Why did you have your gun out in a place where families live, where children walk up and down the stairs, where they play and travel? It is our justice system that must ensure we hold officer Liang and all cops accountable when they violate the law they are paid to uphold.”
Barron said, “The system is on trial … but we might not even take this route again, people are tired of our people being killed, and the cops being exonerated. We may be seeing some of the last attempts at having us trying to get justice peacefully, if our people keep getting murdered. Today is the fourth anniversary of the police murder of Ramarley Graham. We had no justice there—where NYPD officer Richard Haste chases the young boy into his own house and murders him in front of his grandmother and 6-year-old brother. We need him, that officer, to face trial and, like officer Laing in the latest fatal police shooting of young unarmed Black man, we want convictions and jail time.”