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Accident or recklessness? NYPD officer’s trial opens with two versions of killing

NYPD officer’s trial opens with two versions of fatal shooting
New York Police Officer Peter Liang, center, arrives at a courtroom in Brooklyn on Jan. 20. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted of second-degree manslaughter.
(Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty Images)

If the manslaughter trial of Police Officer Peter Liang were to be turned into a movie, lawyers who presented opening arguments in a New York courtroom on Monday would have written two very different scripts.

According to the defense, Liang would be a tragic character — a young, inexperienced cop patrolling one of the most dangerous housing projects in the city who accidentally fired his gun, the bullet catching an innocent man several floors below.

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The prosecution offered a more sinister, true-crime story in which the officer recklessly fired his gun, sending a bullet ricocheting down a darkened stairwell and fatally striking Akai Gurley, 28, in the chest as he was stepping into the stairway after leaving his girlfriend’s apartment.

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Instead of immediately reporting the shooting to his superiors, prosecutors alleged, Liang fretted about losing his job and then did nothing to help when he and his partner descended the stairs from the eighth floor and found Gurley lying in a pool of blood on a fifth-floor landing, his girlfriend helplessly administering CPR.

“This man had just shot an innocent man and he never tried to undo what he had done,” Assistant Dist. Atty. Marc Fliedner told jurors.

The story of the young Asian officer and an unarmed black man is a more nuanced narrative of the deadly encounters between police and black residents that have ratcheted up tension in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Ferguson, Mo.

The shooting occurred at a public housing development called the Pink Houses in the East New York section of Brooklyn on Nov. 20, 2014. At the time, the city was on edge.

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Just months before, the New York Police Department had been embroiled in the controversy over the death of Eric Garner, an incident that sharpened the nation’s focus on the use of lethal force by police, especially in dealing with black men. Garner died after his arrest on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes; video taken by a bystander showed a police officer wrestling him to the ground and putting him in an apparent chokehold.

Although a grand jury declined to bring charges against the officer in the Garner case, a Brooklyn grand jury recommended that criminal charges be filed against Liang. The charges include manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

On Monday, Liang’s defense attorney Rae Koshetz told the jury of five women and seven men not to be swayed by the public debate over police use of force.

“This is not a referendum on policing in the United States,” Koshetz said during her opening statement. “This was an accident. He had no intent to hurt anybody.”

She asked Liang, 28, to stand briefly so the jurors could see him clearly. Liang, in a dark blue suit, white shirt and red tie, showed no emotion as he rose from his chair at the defense table.

Koshetz said Liang, who had been on the force for 11 months when the shooting occurred, was in shock after he realized the bullet from his gun had struck Gurley.

Describing the scene in the stairwell, she said: “Patrick Liang is a wreck. He’s hyperventilating. He needs oxygen. He’s not just upset about his job.”

Koshetz said she believed that by the end of the trial, which is expected to last two to three weeks, the prosecution would not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Liang acted criminally when his gun went off.

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“We will ask you not to see another tragedy occur in this courtroom,” she said.

Fliedner, the prosecutor, described the shooting in detail during his statement to the jury. He said Liang and his partner had entered the stairwell on the building’s eighth floor, where the lights were not working.

He said Liang went first, a flashlight in one hand and his gun drawn in the other. “He pumped out a bullet that landed an inch from Akai Gurley and then tore through his chest,” the prosecutor said. “He should be alive today. Akai Gurley is dead because he crossed paths with Peter Liang.”

Melissa Lopez, a prosecution witness and a resident of the Pink Houses who first reported the shooting to police, described the chaos and emotion in the stairwell.

Lopez testified that she remained on the phone with a woman from the city’s emergency medical service, who gave CPR instructions, which Lopez then relayed to Gurley’s girlfriend, Melissa Butler, in the stairwell.

While this was unfolding, Lopez said, she saw the two officers reach the landing where Gurley was lying.

“Did he have any contact with Mr. Gurley?” Fliedner asked, referring to Liang.

“I didn’t see either one of them do anything,” Lopez replied.

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Several relatives of Gurley who were in the courtroom had tears running down their faces during Lopez’s testimony.

Liang faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted of second-degree manslaughter, the most serious charge. He is on modified duty at the Police Department, his lawyers said.

Haller is a special correspondent.

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