Tuesday, April 19, 2016

No Prison for ex-NYPD Officer Peter Liang in Fatal Shooting of Akai Gurley
Matt Hansen and Matt Pearce
Los Angeles Times

Ex-NYPD officer Peter Liang will not serve time behind bars for fatally shooting an innocent, unarmed black man in 2014 in a case that has drawn the attention of both Asian American and African American protesters.

A Brooklyn judge sentenced Liang to five years of probation and 800 hours of community service on Tuesday, saying the rookie cop never intended to shoot — let alone kill — Akai Gurley while patrolling a dark stairwell in a Brooklyn housing project.

Liang was convicted in February of manslaughter and official misconduct for firing a shot that ricocheted off a wall and struck Gurley in the heart, but Judge Danny Chun on Tuesday reduced the manslaughter charge to criminally negligent homicide.

Why this cop's conviction brought thousands of Asian Americans into New York's streets
Why this cop's conviction brought thousands of Asian Americans into New York's streets
Liang had said he was startled by a loud noise, and his attorneys requested the downgraded charge, saying prosecutors hadn't proved Liang intentionally created a risk.

"Shooting that gun and killing someone was probably the last thing in his mind and probably never entered his mind at all," Chun said. "This was not an intentional act. … There's no evidence, either direct or circumstantial, that the defendant was aware of Akai Gurley's presence."

Liang, who was fired by the NYPD after his conviction, gave a quiet and contrite address to the court, saying he was "forever changed" by the shooting.

After the shooting, "I was in shock and could barely breathe," he said, his head bowed as he read a statement. "I wish I could undo what happened."

Liang originally faced up to 15 years in prison, but a Brooklyn prosecutor requested before Tuesday’s sentencing that Liang receive no prison time.

At the same time, Liang's victim was remembered as a family man who deserved justice.

Kimberly Ballinger, Gurley's partner, said the loss has been particularly difficult for her young daughter.

"Everyday Akaila asks why her dad was killed by a police officer," she told the court.

Melissa Butler
Melissa Butler, the girlfriend of Akai Gurley who was with him when he was shot by a New York City police officer, cries during a protest in Brooklyn in March. (Richard Drew / Associated Press)
The case elicited heated emotions from African American activists who wanted accountability for Gurley’s death and from Asian Americans who felt that Liang was being scapegoated because of his Chinese American ancestry.

Before Tuesday’s sentencing, both groups gathered outside the Brooklyn courthouse.

As Liang's attorneys filtered into the courthouse, protesters who felt the Liang shooting represented an unsettling trend of police targeting African Americans chanted for harsher punishment: "Indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail. The whole damn system is guilty as hell."

Liang is the first NYPD officer to have been convicted of an on-duty death since 2005 — a rare victory for Black Lives Matter protesters who have been calling for tougher prosecutions of officers involved in questionable shootings.

But a small group of pro-Liang protesters also gathered outside the courthouse Tuesday, holding signs that said "selective justice" and "racist prosecution."

For many of the mostly Asian American crowd, the Liang shooting was a tragic accident caused by difficult patrol conditions in a dark and poorly maintained public housing facility. They felt Liang was an easy target for prosecution because of his ethnicity, while they said white cops went free or were lightly punished for similar incidents.

As the verdict trickled through the crowd, both camps expressed a lingering sense of exhaustion and frustration.

"Nobody wins," said Kevin Ni, 45, a Liang supporter. "But at least we can clear the case."

For supporters of the Gurley family, the verdict was dispiriting but not surprising.

"This case is unique because it involves two different minorities," said Pedro Valdez Rivera Jr., 24. "Both of them are victims of the bureaucracy going on in the system."

It also hit uncomfortably close to home for some, like Carol Gray, whose son Kimani was shot in 2013 by New York police officers who did not face charges.

"A life has been taken. Akai Gurley is gone," she said, expressing frustration that Liang didn't receive a harsher punishment when other defendants "go to jail for smoking drugs, for shoplifting."

Even the younger members of the crowd expressed a deep sense of fatigue at what they saw as another systemic failure.

"This is my first protest," said Imani Ecclesiasdes, 15. "I'm here because I'm tired of seeing my people get gunned down and the system doing nothing about it."

Liang grew up in New York's Chinatown as the son of Chinese immigrants, and his conviction in February brought out 10,000 protesters in Brooklyn in the largest display of Chinese activism in recent memory. Rallies were held in other cities across the U.S. as well, with several hundred protesting outside Los Angeles City Hall on Feb. 20.

Prosecutors accused Liang of deadly negligence. After shooting Gurley, Liang didn't call for an ambulance and didn't perform CPR — factors that seemed to count against him in court.

Gurley's supporters say that whatever unfairness there may be in Liang's conviction, it can't compare with the injustice of Gurley's death.

"Akai had family that loved him just like Peter Liang, a mother just like Peter Liang," Gurley's aunt, Hertencia Peterson, told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month.

"But Liang's mother can come visit him every day. Akai Gurley's mom ... has to visit his grave."

Special correspondent Hansen reported from New York and staff writer Pearce reported from Los Angeles. Staff writer Frank Shyong in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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