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Trial opens for NYPD officer charged in death of Akai Gurley

January 25, 2016 By Andy Katz, special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle And Tom Hays, The Associated Press
Accused NYPD Officer Peter Liang is stone-faced as he passes lines of activists and Gurley family supporters on his way to face charges in the East New York shooting. Eagle photos by Andy Katz
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After a week of jury selection, opening arguments began Monday in King’s County Supreme Court as the case against rookie NYPD Officer Peter Liang went underway.  Liang, 29, had been with the department for 18 months on Nov. 20, 2014, when he, along with his partner Shaun Landau, conducted a vertical patrol of the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York. While entering a darkened seventh-floor landing, Liang’s service weapon fired once, striking Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old unarmed black man, who had just entered the stairwell after visiting his girlfriend.

Despite widespread agreement that the shooting was accidental, Gurley’s death prompted heated reaction in both the local Brooklyn community and throughout the nation, further fueling the Black Lives Matter movement that had begun after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Officer Liang was suspended from the department without pay and is currently charged with second-degree manslaughter, reckless endangerment, criminally negligent homicide, official misconduct and second-degree assault. He could face as much as 15 years in prison if found guilty of all accounts.

Monday’s trial, scheduled to start at 9 a.m., ran late in part because of continued travel difficulties in the wake of Saturday’s blizzard and the court officials’ attempts to find room for observers and the several dozen activists who staged a “Pack The Court For The First Day Of Akai Gurley Trial and Beyond!” event, seeking justice for the man whom even NYPD Commissioner William Bratton characterized as a “total innocent.” While space was eventually made for many Gurley supporters, more than a dozen remained outside as the trial began.

Liang and his attorneys were among the first to arrive at 8:45 a.m., when the courthouse was still relatively deserted. Later, accompanied by his attorneys, Liang passed the line of Gurley supporters on his way to the courtroom. One young woman, who declined to give her name, shouted out that justice would be done as she held up a hand-lettered sign. Court security restrained her, but she was not expelled from the waiting area.

There did not appear to be any supporters of Liang.

The charges against Liang have become something of a lightning-rod issue, with many in the Asian-American community and supporters of law enforcement, such as the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, viewing him as a sacrifice to the Black Lives Matter movement, while others take some satisfaction in what they view as law enforcement finally being held accountable.

Bronx Copwatch founder Jose LaSalle, on hand to support the Gurley family, said: “There’s simply no excuse. He didn’t follow procedures and now he’s called to task just like anybody else!”

At Monday’s trial, a prosecutor asserted that Liang, after shooting Gurley, “stood there whining and moaning about how he could get fired” instead of helping the dying man.

After the shooting, Liang and his partner walked past Gurley and a friend who was trying to give him CPR, prosecutor Marc Fliedner said in opening statements. Neither officer stopped, he said.

“A police officer — this police officer — and he never even knelt down and try to fix what he’d done,” Fliedner said.

Defense attorney Rae Koshetz said that Liang’s gun discharged accidentally and that he didn’t commit a crime.

“Peter Liang had no intent to hurt anybody,” she said.

Her client had his gun drawn because he was headed to the roof of the housing project — “the most dangerous place of a dangerous place,” she said.

Koshetz said Liang initially had no idea the bullet had struck anyone. Once he learned, “he was in a state of shock and was hyperventilating,” she said.

The prosecution stands in contrast to other cases around the country in which officers intentionally used deadly force against other unarmed black men but escaped criminal charges.

Liang is expected to take the witness stand.

Advocates for stricter police accountability see the second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and other charges brought by Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson as justified. They say the case offers a counterpoint to decisions by grand juries declining to indict white police officers in other killings, including those of Eric Garner on Staten Island and Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.

The case “is a good sign the DA’s office is moving in the right direction,” said Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele, senior community organization for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “But we have a long way to go.”

Added Gurley’s aunt, Hertencia Peterson: “This is for everyone who has not yet gotten justice.”

According to grand jury testimony by Liang’s partner, Liang repeatedly told him, “It went off by accident,” and fretted that he would be fired. The two then bickered for at least two minutes about which one should call a supervisor to report the discharge.

Prosecutors allege Liang acted recklessly in his handling of his weapon and that he and his partner did nothing to help Gurley, even after they knew he had been shot. Court papers describe the pair walking around the dying victim and down a flight of stairs as the weeping friend tried to give him CPR.

The defense also has suggested that Liang’s gun was defective.

The slaying recalled two others by officers patrolling Brooklyn housing projects — the shootings of 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury on a rooftop in 2004 and of 13-year-old Nicholas Heyward Jr. while carrying a toy gun. Neither officer was charged.

Gurley’s family has brought a wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of his estate and his young daughter.

He had planned to move the child and her mother with him to Florida, where his own mother lives, before his life was cut short, his aunt said.

“It’s how Akai was killed that’s impossible to accept,” Peterson said. “We’re still in shock.”

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