After two and a half days of deliberation, a New York City cop was found guilty of manslaughter and official misconduct by a jury of his peers in Brooklyn’s State Supreme Court last Thursday evening. The charges stemmed from the Nov. 20, 2014, shooting death of Akai Gurley, an innocent, unarmed Black man in a dimly lit stairwell of the Louis Pink Houses in East New York.
The verdict’s announcement caused some of Gurley’s supporters in the courtroom to shed sympathetic tears while embracing each other and expressing gratitude.
Simultaneously, convicted cop Peter Liang dropped his head in his hands, wrapping them around the back of his neck as one of his attorneys comforted him.
“Justice was done,” declared Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson after the verdict. “What we saw today is that people from all walks of life, here in Brooklyn, came together to affirm that Akai Gurley’s life did matter. He was a young man who was killed by a police officer who violated his training. He took out his gun. He fired that trigger and killed an innocent man, and he had to be held accountable. It’s that simple.”
“The verdict caught everyone by surprise,” said a source close to the case. “We thought court was closed for the long weekend, as it was already 6:30 p.m.”
The guilty verdict came as a welcome surprise to many locals, who remained very pessimistic throughout the two and a half week trial after several recent police killings in which the cops were never formerly indicted. And in the rare occasions when they were charged, judges and/or juries usually didn’t convict them, history reveals.
The fact that Liang and Landau “stepped around Akai” as he lay dying and reportedly searched for the shell casing—for what has been suggested to be an attempt at a cover-up had they found it—had jurors leaning to one side.
The fact that there was an almost all-white jury is not lost on Brooklynites, who cite as the reason both gentrification and potential jurors honestly declaring a certain view of law enforcement.
“Brooklyn leads the nation right now with this case, both focused jurors and a dedicated D.A.,” said a Central Brooklyn resident who attended the trial almost every day.
“It’s about time we got one, and the times in between us getting one are far too long,” commented Assemblyman Charles Barron.“There are too many deaths across this nation and city so that we can get one. This verdict shows that Akai’s life mattered. The jurors listened to the officer who cried just for himself on the stand, and they deemed his credibility to be questionable. He didn’t once apologize to Akai’s family or Melissa, who had to cradle the dying man whom she loved in her arms.”
Last Wednesday, Feb. 10, after the case’s closing arguments the previous day, Judge Danny Chun denied the defense’s request for a mistrial, saying they “fell way, way short in arguing” that prosecutors implied the cop intentionally shot Gurley during their closing arguments, adding that it did not classify as prosecutorial misconduct.
“Instead of pointing his flashlight at the noise, he pointed his gun at it, and he shot Akai Gurley,” prosecutor Joseph Alexis told jurors last Tuesday. “This was not just an accident. He chose to point his gun. He chose to put his finger on the trigger, to fire the gun.”
He also had the jurors squeeze the trigger of Liang’s unloaded Glock to feel for themselves the trigger’s tension.
Liang’s lawyer, Rae Downes-Koshetz, claimed that Alexis’ statements “were inflammatory and unfairly prejudicial” toward the cop.
Jurors were unaware of the mistrial request.
Prosecutors accused the rookie cop of recklessly carrying his gun unholstered in public areas and shooting into a darkened stairwell “for no reason,” saying he should’ve noticed it was occupied before firing, and noted that he did absolutely nothing to aid the mortally wounded man.
Alexis asked jurors to hold Liang accountable.
Earlier last Wednesday, jurors requested that trial testimonies be reread to them, that a neighbor’s 911 call from that tragic night be replayed and that other relevant evidence be reviewed.
Observers asked if Liang truly was startled by a noise, why didn’t he use his flashlight to see what it was?
Approximately an hour before Thursday’s verdict, jurors asked Chun to read the charges to them and explain legal definitions, their second time doing so this week.They had also asked to handle Liang’s Glock, which Chun allowed with an officer’s supervision. Earlier that day, he allowed jurors to review the NYPD firearms guide.
Liang’s lawyer argued that his gun accidentally discharged, and therefore the killing is not a crime.
Investigators said Gurley was “a total innocent.”
Kimberly Ballinger, mother
of Gurley’s daughter, dabbed tears and later displayed the Black Power salute after the verdict.
“Yes, I do think he should go to jail,” she said. “Everyone should go to jail for when they make a mistake.”
Liang admitted under oath that he “tensed up” after being “startled” by a sound, causing the gun to discharge and mortally wound Gurley, who was taking the stairs with his girlfriend, Melissa Butler, on the seventh floor.
“We don’t believe that the verdict was supported by the facts or the law,” said defense attorney Robert Brown. “We plan on moving post-verdict in order to dismiss, and if that fails, we plan to appeal.”
“I have family who are police, and it was a very tough decision,” one juror said afterward.“I’ve got to face my family.”
“Police must be held accountable,” Gurley’s stepfather, Kenneth Palmer, stated the Monday before the verdict.
Liang is the first New York cop convicted in a fatal on-duty shooting in 10 years. The last time an NYPD officer was convicted of killing an unarmed Black man was 2005, when undercover officer Bryan A. Conroy was tried twice and finally convicted by State Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Straus of the criminally negligent homicide of Ousmane Zongo in a Chelsea warehouse. But Conroy was only sentenced to five years’ probation and 500 hours of community service. However, in the case of Liange, manslaughter is a much more serious conviction. Liang is facing a 5- to 15-year sentence when sentenced on April 14.
Gurley’s aunt, Hertencia Petersen, stooding next to his mother outside the courthouse stated that she was grateful the for jury’s decision and that the verdict was an outcome “that has not come down in how long.”
PBA President Patrick Lynch released a statement saying, “We are very disappointed in the verdict and believe that the jury came to an absolutely wrong decision.This was a terrible and tragic accident and not a crime.This bad verdict will have a chilling effect on police officers across the city because it criminalizes a tragic accident.”
The notion that police are paid to protect and serve, but failed on both counts, had the Brooklyn community rallying Friday at One Police Plaza, even after the Thursday night verdict was delivered.
The NYPD said soon after the verdict that Liang was fired. His partner Shaun Landau was terminated the following day.
Mayor Bill de Blasio released a statement Thursday night stating, “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.”
Thompson told reporters that as the verdict was read, “I told his mother, ‘I’m sorry we were in that courtroom at that point.’”
The D.A. told the Amsterdam News, “This verdict represents justice for Akai Gurley, a totally innocent man who was shot and killed as he was simply walking down the stairs in the Pink Houses and on his way home that night. The jury convicted officer Peter Liang of manslaughter because he ignored critical training that he got as a police officer, and that was to never put his finger on the trigger of his gun unless he was ready to shoot. His reckless actions in that stairwell that night cost Akai Gurley his life—a life that he had sworn to protect.
“It’s also important to note that there are no winners here and that this verdict was against only one officer and not against all of the brave and dedicated members of the NYPD, who risk their lives every day to keep us all safe.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton said, “Hopefully this verdict brings some comfort to the Gurley family and gives hope to the others who continue to seek justice for police misconduct. Akai Gurley was an innocent Black man walking down a stairwell, shot for no reason, and who was stolen from his family. This verdict is a signal that, at least in this case, there are consequences for an officer’s actions. Namely, you will not be allowed to kill young men of our community and expect to walk away free and clear. It is clear that Peter Liang should never have had his gun out, he should never have been in that stairwell, and that we must look closely at so-called vertical patrols in public housing—a tactic that is far too similar to stop-and-frisk.”
Barron first regarded Butler as “the courageous sister whose testimony I believe” had a lot to do with the verdict, acknowledging “her bravery to get up on the stand.” He also praised Thompson for “keeping his word.”
The assemblyman added, “The struggle continues, we still have to get past the appeal and the sentencing phase. So I urge our movement to stay vigilant in demanding justice and that we do not relax until he is imprisoned facing the maximum amount of time to someone who has taken a life unnecessarily. To the Gurley family, I continue to express my condolences and support. No matter what the verdict is, it will never bring back Akai to them, but at least this is a beginning of some semblance of the beginning stages of justice for them.”