“How many times does the DA Ken Thompson, NYPD and the courts want to kill Akai Gurley?” a distraught Hertencia Petersen wailed, after Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Danny Chun decided to allow the (now ex-cop) killer of her nephew to go home with no jail time. The pain of the weeping family members and supporters was palatable.
“It’s clear that the lives of police officers are valued above justice,” declared Gurley’s mother, Sylvia Palmer. “This system and its agents should no longer claim to be about justice because they only produce injustice. They do not value Black lives with their actions.”
Tuesday, April 19, Brooklyn Supreme Court was packed with the family of the convicted felon, ex-cop Peter Liang, officials from DA Thompson’s office, PBA members and other police, the press—with a few seats for Gurley’s family and supporters. With one pool camera and one still photographer allowed to record the proceedings, Justice Chun delivered his sentence slowly and with what appeared to be some trepidation.
Officials from Thompson’s office listened intently as Chun sentenced Liang only to five years of probation and 800 hours community service for his Nov. 20, 2014 unprovoked killing of Gurley in the stairwell of a public housing project in East New York, Brooklyn.
Chun reduced Liang’s manslaughter conviction to criminally negligent homicide before handing down his sentence.
“There’s no evidence Peter Liang was aware of Akai Gurley’s presence,” Chun said. “I looked at the video of Peter Liang entering the Pink Houses that night, and he entered with a good frame of mind. Shooting and killing someone was the last thing on his mind. Incarceration is not necessary.”
Melissa Butler, the young woman who had tried to save Gurley’s life with CPR, broke down in uncontrollable tears, as did her mother, Naomi.
Outside the court, as a sectioned-off group of Liang’s supporters cheered the decision, fired-up Gurley supporters did the opposite, arguing that the cop’s actions were reckless and caused Gurley to lose his life, and therefore he should still be held accountable.
“When a jury convicts a defendant of manslaughter in the second-degree and for a judge to overturn a jury’s conviction like he’s a little dictator in the court is an absurd miscarriage of justice,” said Charles Barron, New York State Assembly member and founding member of Operation POWER.
Roger Wareham, attorney for Melissa Butler told the Amsterdam News, “The decision by Judge Chun at the Peter Liang sentencing—no prison, no house arrest, reduction of the jury conviction from a ‘C’ to an ‘E’ felony, 800 hours of community service, five years probation—reflects the reality of systemic racism in the United States of America. Systemic racism means just that, a system that keeps producing the same result, the subjugation and extermination of Black people. The law enforcement and/or white vigilante personnel who carry out this subjugation/extermination are almost never punished for their deeds. This is because from the white supremacist system’s point of view, the victims are actually criminals—guilty of ‘breathing while Black.’ Indeed, the taking of Black life is not worthy of punishment. And, just as importantly, the race of those carrying out the system’s dictates is irrelevant. Remember, Black police enforced apartheid in South Africa. Hopefully this painful, but enlightening, lesson will dispel any remaining illusions about ‘criminal’ justice and force our community to develop and implement more effective strategies and tactics to secure and protect our human rights.”
The light sentence was in tune with Thompson’s controversial—and much decried— recommendation last month. Gurley supporters questioned vociferously why the office that brought the indictment and won the manslaughter conviction of the killer cop would then decide that he needed to do no jail time.
Although Brooklyn’s first African-American DA was initially praised for securing an indictment and conviction for the senseless loss of life, he has received harsh criticism for recommending that the cop not be incarcerated.
Although he admitted in a letter to Chun last month that “Mr. Gurley was a completely innocent man, who lost his life for no reason,” he added, “the incarceration of the defendant is not necessary to protect the public, and because of the unique circumstances of this case, the People do not believe that a prison sentence is warranted.”
Thompson recommended Liang receive a sentence of six months of house arrest, 500 hours of community service and five years of probation.
He got his wish, and Chun took it to another level, declaring, “Instead of him staying home for six months, he should be more productive and get 800 hours (of) community service with five years probation.”
“It goes to show that an Asian judge wasn’t about to send an Asian defendant to jail,” Barron told the Amsterdam News. “Especially since a Black prosecutor who betrayed the Black community agreed with him on no jail time. Both of them are nothing but neo-colonial puppets for an American injustice system.”
Liang had been convicted of second-degree manslaughter and official misconduct back in February after a two-and-a-half week trial and was subsequently fired from the NYPD. He faced up to 15 years for the manslaughter conviction, which Chun reduced to criminally negligent homicide.
Kim Ballinger, the mother of Gurley’s 3-year-old daughter, said, “My daughter Akaila is without a father, his mother is without a son. He was my partner, a great father. I’ll never forget what Mayor de Blasio said to me that night—that Akai was innocent and should still be alive.”
Sentencing was initially scheduled for last Thursday. However, it was pushed to this Tuesday after Liang’s lawyers argued that Juror No. 9, Michael Vargas, had claimed during the jury selection process that no one in his family had ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. Yet, after the verdict, he revealed to a newspaper that his estranged father had been jailed for accidentally fatally shooting a friend.
After some investigation, Chun refused the defense’s request for a mistrial and the case resumed Tuesday.
Upon the sentence announcement, Gurley’s vexed aunt, Hertencia Petersen, rushed out the courtroom and announced, “Akai’s life doesn’t matter. There’s no justice. Black lives don’t matter. Justice will be served one way or another!”
Outside the court, protesters chanted expletives and declared, “They think it’s a game!”
“We are sick and tired of police officers not being held accountable for the killing of civilians,” said 34-year-old protester Rodrigo Starz.
Another demonstrator asserted, “Black lives still don’t matter to the boys in blue, in a system of white supremacy!”
“Today, justice was not served,” said Petersen. “Another Black man has been murdered by the police department and the officer is not being held accountable. But we are going to continue to fight until we get justice!”
Meanwhile both sides are appealing parts of the case: Thompson’s office against the reduction of the charge, and the defense against their client being labeled a felon.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. released a statement saying that they were “deeply disappointed that Judge Danny Chun did not sentence former New York City police officer Peter Liang to prison for the killing of Akai Gurley, an unarmed African-American.”
The statement continued, “Instead, Judge Chun reduced Mr. Liang’s charge and sentenced him to five years of probation and 800 hours of community service, largely in keeping with the recommendation by Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson. Mr. Liang, who was tried and convicted of manslaughter and official misconduct in the death of Mr. Gurley last month, could have received as many as 15 years in prison.”
“Peter Liang’s sentence sends a deeply troubling message that police officers convicted of killing unarmed African-Americans will be held to a different, and more lenient, standard of justice than everyone else involved in the criminal justice system,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP LDF. “This decision compromises the perception of fairness and independence that is vital to improving public confidence in the justice system and to restoring effective community-police relations. Here, the jury did its job and was failed by the prosecutorial and judicial components of the justice system, as was Mr. Gurley’s family.”
Chun stated, “I find that given the defendant’s background, and given how remorseful he is … it would not be necessary to incarcerate the defendant to have a just sentence in this case.”
But, the NAACP LDF pointed out that Liang entered Gurley’s public housing building on a “vertical patrol” with his gun drawn, which led to Gurley’s tragic death.
“A non-prison sentence completely fails to reflect the reality that Mr. Gurley was an innocent man who was killed for standing in a stairwell,” said Janai Nelson, NAACP LDF’s associate director-counsel. “This outcome strongly reinforces the need for independent prosecutors to handle police-involved offenses, and for an examination of the deference and privileges afforded to police officers that are not extended to other defendants.”
The NAACP LDF noted that Gurley’s death “is a reminder of the urgent need for systemic police reform—in New York City and across the nation.”
“Indeed,” the statement continued, “trial testimony exposed critical gaps in the training, supervision and accountability of NYPD officers and the need for fundamental reforms in how officers are prepared to interact with the communities they serve.”
“The American justice system stinks, even when there is a Black prosecutor and an Asian Judge!” declared State Assembly member Charles Barron and City Council member Inez Barron in a statement. “They serve as neo-colonial puppets of a racist capitalist system. A jury convicted Liang of manslaughter in the second degree and Judge Danny Chun said no to the jury and reversed their decision. Why have a jury if a judge can serve as a dictator? An Asian Judge was not going to send an Asian defendant to jail, especially when a Black prosecutor, Ken Thompson, says no jail time. They are both a disgrace to this nation. We have got to get beyond just mobilizing from issue to issue. We have to have serious talks about the end game, radical change in the American system, on a local and state level. It may take us generations, but it can’t just be justice in one case, it has to be a revolutionary change in the American system because of its racism, classism and its continuing fascist police terrorism!”