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No indictment in Ferguson as Brooklyn investigates its own police shooting

November 26, 2014 By Charisma L. Troiano, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson. AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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With the Associated Press

A grand jury declined Monday to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed, black 18-year-old whose fatal shooting sparked weeks of nationwide protests and inflamed deep racial tensions between many African-Americans and police.

Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch said the jury of nine whites and three blacks met on 25 separate days over three months. The jury heard more than 70 hours of testimony from about 60 witnesses, including three medical examiners and experts on blood, toxicology and firearms. As McCulloch read his statement, Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, sat atop a vehicle listening to a broadcast of the announcement. When she heard the decision, she burst into tears and began screaming before being whisked away by supporters.

Brown’s family released a statement saying they were “profoundly disappointed” in the decision but asked the public to “channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.”

But, moments after the announcement by St. Louis County’s top prosecutor, crowds began pouring into Ferguson streets to protest the decision. Some taunted police, broke windows and vandalized cars. Within a few hours, several large buildings were ablaze, and frequent gunfire was heard. Officers used tear gas to try to disperse some of the gatherings.


From Ferguson to Brooklyn: Police Shooting Startles a Community

The Ferguson announcement comes days after a probationary police officer shot and killed an unarmed man in a Brooklyn housing project. The victim, Akai Gurley, 28, was fatally shot by rookie police officer Peter Liang last Thursday, while Liang and another rookie officer conducted a vertical patrol of the Louis Pink Houses in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn 

According to authorities, Liang walked the darkened stairwell of the public housing complex with a flashlight and his gun in hand.  Gurley was walking down the stairs with his girlfriend, likely unaware that police officers were 14-steps away from on the eighth-floor landing. 

There is no dispute that Gurley was unarmed and posed no danger to Liang.

“The deceased is totally innocent,” New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said last week. “He just happened to be in the hallway. He was not engaged in any criminal activity.”

The medical examiner has ruled Gurley’s death a homicide — a death not by natural causes.

The medical examiner’s office said in a statement Monday that its classification in Gurley’s instance “does not imply any statement about intent or culpability.” 

With the conclusion of medical examiner and the case of Ferguson still burning in the minds of Brooklynites, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson’s decision on whether to bring charges against Liang comes at a key time in Brooklyn and the nation’s history.

Thompson has made clear his choice not to comment on the Gurley case to ensure a “fair and honest” investigation, a spokeswoman for the D.A.’s Office told the Eagle. 

Brooklyn pols have expressed their confidence in Thompson and his ability to fairly assess the facts. 

“This is a major tragedy in our city, but District Attorney Thompson is charged with the responsibility of judging cases based on the law and the facts,” New York City Public Advocate Letitia James said at a Sunday press conference in Brooklyn.

James, along with U.S. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn), Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn) and Juan Rodriguez, president of the 75th precinct community council, met with Thompson and seven other deputies over the weekend to voice their concerns in relation to the Gurley case.

“[B]ased upon our conversation … [D.A. Thompson] will view this case through the lens of the law and the facts that will guide him,” James said. “And we have complete confidence in D.A. Thompson in his investigation and will accept his analysis and his findings and the ultimate conclusion.”


Brooklyn Contrasts, and Lessons Learned

While Thompson is not speaking publicly about the events in Ferguson, Brooklyn’s legal community sees contrasts and lessons to be learned.

 “One of the major issues was that Mike Brown’s body lay dead on the ground for four hours!” Edward Friedman, a Brooklyn civil rights attorney, stated.

Police authorities — following the Brown shooting — characterized the deceased Brown as a suspect rather than a victim.

Days after Officer Wilson shot Brown, reports were released identifying Brown as a violent criminal who had committed a “strong-arm robbery” prior to his deadly encounter with Wilson.  

In contrast, Commissioner Bratton “immediately” declared Gurley as “totally innocent,” the attorney added.

Bratton’s description of the victim may have been not only a statement of fact, but an attempt to assuage community tension. However, the police characterization of Gurley’s shooting raises a few eyebrows.

Gurley’s death has been called “accidental” by police officials, but many in the community question that assessment.

State Assemblymember-elect Charles Barron, whose district includes the Pink Houses, expressed doubt that the shooting was accidental.

“This young man should be alive today,” he said. “This is ridiculous.”

“It is disturbing that the commissioner, without the benefit of even an initial interview with the shooter, has already publicly concluded that this was not just an ‘accidental shooting,’ but an ‘accidental discharge,’” Brooklyn attorney Andrew Stoll noted. “‘Accidentally’ pulling a five pound trigger with your index finger is like ‘accidentally’ dropping a barbell out a fifth floor window.”  

A difference in the prosecutorial system, for Friedman, is enough to set Brooklyn apart from events that transpired in Ferguson after the Brown shooting. In Missouri, Friedman explained, prosecutors have the choice to direct the grand jury to indict or rely solely on the grand jury’s independent conclusion.

“We don’t have that choice in New York. Prosecutors, such as Thompson, have to rely on the grand jury,” Friedman said. 

Before a grand jury is even impaneled, however, Thompson will have to make the determination of whether to charge Liang. If charges are filed, the grand jury will make the decision as to whether there is enough facts to support the charge and proceed the case to trial.

 “With the right information, you can trust the good people of Brooklyn to reach a just result,” said Stoll, named partner at the firm Stoll, Gilckman Bellina. “This is a perfect opportunity for D.A. Thompson to show that he can lead an impartial Grand Jury investigation — free from political pressure.”

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