Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun today sentenced former rookie NYPD Officer Peter Liang to probation and 800 hours of community service for shooting an unarmed black man in a darkened East New York public housing stairwell in 2014.
Additionally, Chun set aside the jury’s guilty verdict of second-degree manslaughter, which carried a sentence of up to 15 years, and reduced the charge to criminally negligent homicide.
“This was a negligent act,” the judge said. “Given the defendant’s background and how remorseful he is, it is not necessary to incarcerate him.”
Liang and another rookie officer were conducting a “vertical patrol” at the Louis Pink Houses in East New York on Nov. 20, 2014 at the time of the incident. In court, Liang testified that said he had unholstered his gun and fired by accident when he was startled by a sound.
The bullet then ricocheted off a wall and hit Akai Gurley, 28, who had just entered the stairwell with his girlfriend one floor below Liang. When Liang found Gurley bleeding to death, neither he nor his partner performed CPR — with both testifying their training was inadequate — and instead they tried to call for help.
Liang said the discharging of his gun was an accident, but prosecutors in closing arguments said that Liang in fact fired on purpose in the direction of the sound he heard, which was Gurley.
The incident and ensuing trial brought out passionate responses with many in East New York and members of the BlackLivesMatter movement demanding justice and that Liang face jail time. Conversely, many in the Asian community felt the incident was a tragic accident and that Liang was a scapegoat for the many white police officers who killed innocent blacks and never faced charges.
The no-jail sentence follows Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson recommending probation last month, arguing that Liang was reckless but didn’t intend to kill Gurley. However, Thompson defended the manslaughter charge and conviction following Chun’s decision.
“My office vigorously prosecuted Peter Liang for manslaughter because the evidence established that his conduct was criminal and the rule of law demanded that he be held accountable for his actions in taking Akai Gurley’s life,” said Thompson. “The jury, the voice of the Brooklyn community, agreed and returned the verdict of guilty against Mr. Liang.
“While our sentencing recommendation was fair under the unique circumstances of this case, we respectfully disagree with the judge’s decision to reduce the jury’s verdict and will fight to reverse it on appeal, he added.
City Council Member Jumaane Williams (Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood) assailed both Chun’s decision and Thompson’s recommendation that Liang doesn not do jail time.
“What message does this send when an unarmed man can be killed, and the justice system deems probation and community service as appropriate retribution? This lack of reverence for Black life has become too common place in our country. This is not about revenge or looking for a harsh sentence; it’s about looking for a fair one. The price for a man’s life should not be so little,” said Williams.
“There is no doubt that the miscarriage of justice and accountability was aided by the already too lenient sentence suggested by the Brooklyn District Attorney. As I suggested, that recommendation could set a dangerous precedent, which appears to already have been followed. I’m disappointed and saddened not only for his family that was seeking justice, but also for the continued impression this will leave for our young black people about the perceived value of their life in this system,” he added.
But Assemblyman William Colton (Bensonhurst, Bath Beach) said Chun’s decision was a step in the right direction, and he still sees Liang as a scapegoat for a failure of government to protect its citizens.
“The original decision was unfair. Whenever government bureaucracy seeks a scapegoat in order to distract attention from its own failures in terms of meeting the needs of its own people this is wrong. Both groups are chanting the same slogan, ‘We want justice,’ and now it’s time to unite to prevent the deplorable conditions in public housing like the Pink Houses that caused this type of tragedy like no lighting in the stairwells,, elevators that don’t work, mild and Lead problems, high crime and anti-police sentiments,” said Colton.
Bay Ridge Sen. Marty Golden called Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Danny Chun’s decision very fair in showing leniency to Liang based upon the evidence of this difficult case and Thompson’s recommendation not to incarcerate.
“Peter Liang’s remorse over his tragic mistake that took the life of Akai Gurley will surely last a lifetime. My prayers go out to both families and hope they can someday find peace and forgiveness,” Golden said.