Former rookie cop Peter Liang was not convicted on a charge of criminally negligent homicide in the shooting death of Akai Gurley in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project. And, he did not seem guilty of the higher crime of manslaughter, which is what a Brooklyn jury convicted him of on Thursday.
Maybe, as the Daily News suggested in a news story, the jury’s verdict was a message that “the public’s opinion on police killings has radically changed,” following the deaths of Eric Garner on Staten Island, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and others at the hands of police around the country. More likely, the verdict was due to an inept defense by Liang’s two attorneys.
Their first mistake was claiming Liang’s gun was defective, despite testimony to the contrary. Their second was not objecting when prosecutors had each juror handle the gun, both during the trial and deliberations. The gun required 11½ pounds of finger pressure to fire. That’s a lot. Since Liang’s lawyers provided no evidence to back up their claim that the gun was defective, jurors were left with the impression that Liang fired deliberately, not accidentally, which was apparently the case.
Third, and perhaps most important, they did not object to the prosecution’s changed theory of the November 2014 killing in closing arguments: that Liang had pointed his gun before firing. This furthered the impression that he fired deliberately at Gurley.
This was not only misleading, but inaccurate. Liang’s bullet first struck a wall, then ricocheted, striking Gurley and killing him. The odds of that happening are longer than hitting the lottery.
Instead, Liang’s attorneys waited a day to object to the prosecutor’s remarks, then asked for a mistrial, which Judge Danny Chun denied. By then, the damage had been done.
What’s next for Liang, who’s been dismissed from the NYPD? An appeal is likely, though on what grounds is not clear. Sentencing is April 4. Jail time for manslaughter carries a maximum of 15 years, though it is not mandatory and lies within a judge’s discretion.
Finally, while Liang’s conviction might satisfy Gurley’s family and black activists, what message does it send to Asian New Yorkers? A white cop was not indicted for the so-called “chokehold” death of Garner. Four white cops were acquitted of criminal charges after they fired 41 bullets that killed unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building in 1999. The first cop who fired mistook Diallo’s wallet for a gun.
Yet an Asian rookie cop who apparently fired his gun accidentally with an unforeseen outcome was found guilty.