As an unarmed man lay dying in a dark stairway, the police officer who had shot him resisted alerting his supervisor and fretted about how the shooting would get him in trouble, prosecutors said Wednesday as they outlined criminal charges against the officer.
“I’m going to be fired,” Officer Peter Liang told his patrol partner in the minutes after he shot Akai Gurley, Assistant Dist. Atty. Marc J. Fliedner told a packed courtroom in Brooklyn. “He did not render aid. He did not administer CPR.”
Fliedner portrayed Liang as a reckless rookie who disregarded what he had been taught in the police academy: namely, to keep his finger off the trigger unless he was under threat.
Gurley, 28, was trying to walk down the stairs of a Brooklyn housing project when he was hit by a bullet that ricocheted off the building’s concrete wall and tore through his chest.
Liang was charged with second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and two counts of official misconduct.
He pleaded not guilty and was released on his own recognizance. If convicted, he could face 15 years in prison. No trial date has been set.
Prosecutors agreed Liang should be released, saying he did not pose a flight risk. That prompted an angry outburst from dozens of spectators in the courtroom.
“The whole damned system is guilty as hell!” they chanted as Liang, flanked by his attorney and several police officers, slowly left the courtroom. “Damn, no handcuffs, no nothing,” one man muttered.
The case has been closely watched in light of the outcome of several other killings of unarmed black men by police, which did not lead to prosecutions. In the days after Gurley’s shooting, a grand jury in Staten Island declined to indict an officer in the July death of Eric Garner, and a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., declined to indict a police officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Brooklyn Dist. Atty. Kenneth Thompson said the decision to charge Liang had nothing to do with those politically charged cases.
“There was no agenda,” Thompson said after Liang’s arraignment. “This case has nothing to do with Ferguson or Eric Garner or any other case.”
He added: “There are no winners here. An innocent man’s life has been taken, and a young police officer … now stands accused of taking that life.”
Thompson also thanked the New York Police Department for its help in his investigation, which began late on Nov. 20.
That night, the phone rang at the home Fliedner, chief of the Brooklyn district attorney’s civil rights bureau. Fliedner “literally jumped out of his bed” and went to the 75th Precinct in the East New York section of Brooklyn to begin interviewing witnesses, Thompson said.
Over the next few days, including on Thanksgiving night, he said investigators knocked on every door in the sprawling Louis H. Pink houses where Gurley had been visiting a resident the night he died.
Prosecutors and the defense agree on the general circumstances of the shooting. Liang and his partner, who has not been charged with wrongdoing, were walking down the stairway from the roof in what is known as a “vertical patrol” when they encountered Gurley and his friend, Melissa Butler, entering the stairway on the seventh floor.
Liang had a flashlight in his right hand and his gun in his left hand. Liang’s attorney, Stephen Worth, and police union representatives have said his gun went off accidentally, and they have referred to the shooting as a tragic accident.
Worth said the grand jury’s review of the evidence was “summary,” and he called the prosecutors’ allegations an attempt to make the defendant “look heartless.”
“There was nothing reckless or criminally negligent about the way Officer Liang performed his duties that night,” Worth said after the arraignment. “This was an accident.”
Prosecutors say they do not believe Liang intended to kill anyone, but they say he descended a dark stairwell with no consideration for who might be there and had his finger on the trigger of his gun instead of on the side, as he had been trained to do.
“The defendant ignored this training,” Fliedner said. “As a result, Akai Gurley is dead.”
Prosecutors said it was several minutes before anyone called for help. They say Liang and his partner spent at least four minutes on the building’s rooftop arguing about whether to alert their supervisor. In the meantime, Butler was trying to save Gurley, who had staggered down two flights of stairs before collapsing.
When the officers finally went downstairs to where Gurley was, Fliedner said Liang did not render aid. “He just stood there,” he said.
Outside court, Kimberly Ballinger, the mother of Gurley’s 2-year-old daughter, called the indictment the “first step” toward justice.
“Now what we need is a conviction, which I have faith we will get,” she said.