New York City police officer Peter Liang has opted to be tried by jury for his fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Akai Gurley, in a housing project stairwell over a year ago.
Liang’s lawyers have made the rare decision to forgo a bench trial, decided by a judge, which has historically been seen as the preferable route for police officers. It is believed that they have a harder time making their case to jurors, who may be more easily swayed by sympathy for the victims than judges are.
“We have great confidence in 12 jurors and are unshaken in our belief that this case was a terrible accident that never fit the definition of manslaughter and should never have led to an indictment,” one of Liang’s attorneys, Rae Downes Koshetz, told DNAinfo.
Prosecutors allege that while Liang and his partner, Shaun Landau, were patrolling a Brooklyn housing project, Liang fired his gun in a dark landing, hitting Gurley just as he and his girlfriend entered the stairwell.
The prosecution document further states that Liang and Landau argued for several minutes over how to report the incident while Gurley lay dying a few floors below them. They allegedly radioed for help 19 minutes after the fatal shot.
At that time, Liang had been on the job for no more than 18 months.
He was indicted last February on six counts, including second-degree manslaughter and reckless endangerment. Landau was not charged.
Liang’s lawyers contend that claims about the officer’s “callous” handling of the situation are false. “This was a terrible, terrible tragic accident,” Koshetz told DNAinfo. “There was absolutely no criminal intent here whatsoever.”
The grand jury decision stirred controversy not only because of the alleged nature of the shooting, but also because of its timing following protests over the non-indictment in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
The timing of the Liang indictment was seized upon by some members of the Chinese American community, whose voice in debates surrounding police brutality has largely been overlooked. Liang’s family lives in a working-class Chinese enclave in Brooklyn.
While some took to the streets along Black Lives Matter protesters calling for justice for Gurley, others marched for a different reason. They feared that the rookie cop would be prosecuted not for his own crime, but rather for those of the white police officers who have committed similar acts while escaping punishment.
“They’re looking for a scapegoat,” New York resident Tom Lai told NPR during a rally last April in which hundreds of protesters walked across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan Chinatown holding “No Scapegoat” signs.
“They say, ‘This Asian guy. This community [doesn’t] vote,'” Lai said. “‘They don’t have enough elected officials. They don’t know what to say. Let’s get him!’ ”
Speaking to the New York Times, Phil Gim, a New York businessman, agreed: “The climate is crying out for the indictment of a police officer…[Liang] is being sacrificed for all the injustices that happened.”
But other Chinese Americans have condemned such sentiments, arguing that the community should focus on the larger picture of building solidarity against police misconduct.
“Peter Liang being Asian only means that all cops need to be held accountable, regardless of skin color,” Cathy Dang, the executive director of a New York advocacy group for Asian immigrants, told the New York Times.
Chinese Americans joined Black Lives Matter protesters outside the Brooklyn Supreme Court, after Liang appeared in court last May. They held up signs, some in Chinese, while chanting, “Hands up to the sky! We want justice for Akai!”
Brooklyn Districty Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson said during a news conference last February that Liang’s indictment had “nothing to do with Ferguson or Eric Garner or any other case.”
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