A day after Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson recommended that former New York police officer Peter Liang not serve time in prison for the fatal shooting of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man, Liang spoke with his victim’s partner for the first time.
The meeting on Thursday was somber and subdued. It lasted no more than five minutes, long enough for an apology and a handshake.
In November 2014, Liang opened fire in the darkened stairwell of a New York City housing project during a routine patrol, hitting and killing Gurley. He was convicted of second-degree manslaughter last month.
Liang’s lawyer, Paul Shechtman, told the New York Times that Liang wanted to apologize to Kimberly Ballinger, who is also the mother of Gurley’s three-year-old daughter.
“He said he was very sorry, that he knows how difficult it is to lose a loved one and that this was the last thing he could have ever imagined happening,” Shechtman said.
In turn, Ballinger responded that her life had been irrevocably changed.
“She no longer has a partner, and her life has been turned upside down,” Scott Rynecki, Ballinger’s lawyer, told the Times. “And she let him know that Akai was a good, innocent man and a good father.”
Rynecki said Liang’s legal team had been asking for a meeting for a month, and Ballinger acquiesced in order to tell him in person the grief he caused.
At the end of the brief meeting, the two shook hands.
“That apology is not something that the family accepts,” Shavon Ford, Gurley’s cousin, told ABC-7. “That apology does nothing. It does nothing to absolve Peter Liang from shooting and killing Akai Gurley. So he apologizes now over a year later after the incident.”
Shechtman said Liang was advised not to apologize before the end of the trial because it could have been used against him.
The meeting between Liang and Ballinger came a day after Thompson, the district attorney, announced in a statement that he will not seek prison time for the convicted officer.
In a letter to Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun, who will ultimately determine Liang’s sentence, Thompson wrote:
We believe that justice will best be served in this tragic case if the defendant is sentenced on the manslaughter count to five years of probation, with the condition that the defendant serve six months of home confinement, with electronic monitoring, and that he perform five hundred hours of community services.
Thompson said while Liang’s criminal acts had “tragic and irreparable consequences,” there was no evidence that he intended to kill or injure Gurley, nor does he pose a threat to public safety. As he has been fired from the NYPD, there is also no possibility that he will commit further police misconduct.
The case was about “justice and not revenge,” the district attorney said in a statement to the Times.
Thompson’s recommendation has angered many, including Gurley’s family. A statement from his mother, aunt and stepfather called it part of “an on-going pattern of a severe lack of accountability for officers that unjustly kill and brutalize New Yorkers that allows the violence to continue.”
“Officer Liang recklessly had his gun out and pulled the trigger that night, took no steps to assist Akai as he lay dying, and because of that our family has lost Akai forever,” the family members said. “[Thompson’s] inadequate recommendation…diminishes Akai’s death.”
Dozens of demonstrators stood outside the district attorney’s office, where the meeting took place on Thursday, ABC-7 reported.
Liang’s indictment and subsequent conviction have roiled Asian American communities, as protests flared up across the country in defiance of the verdict. In Brooklyn, thousands gathered with signs that read “One Tragedy Two Victims” and “No Selective Justice,” chanting “No scapegoat! No scapegoat!”
Protesters noted that as tensions have mounted between the African American communities and police forces nationwide, no officers were indicted in high-profile cases like that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. The officers involved in those killings were white; Liang is Chinese American.
Some supporters of Liang agreed with the conviction, but advocated for a light sentence.
Fliers handed out at rally in downtown Los Angeles conveyed “deepest condolences” to Gurley’s family, but said protesters were “equally saddened by the selective and unjust prosecution of Peter Liang, who is made the scapegoat of the police brutality that has long troubled our society.”
The issue divided Asian Americans, as others defended the verdict and took part in counter-protests led by Black Lives Matter organizers.
Annie Tan wrote in the Huffington Post: “Officer Liang may have been shortchanged by a police institution that did not train him properly and then abandoned him, but he is not a victim. His actions directly and unjustifiably caused the death of another.”
Tan’s uncle was Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American who was fatally beaten by two white men outside of a McDonald’s in 1982. His death became a watershed moment for Asian Americans, as they rallied for hate crime convictions for the perpetrators, who were sentenced to three years probation and no jail time for manslaughter.
“Vincent Chin has far more in common with Akai Gurley than with Peter Liang,” Tan wrote. “Like Akai Gurley, my uncle Vincent was killed because he was a person of color…Injustice is injustice.”
Writing for the New York Times Magazine, Jay Caspian Kang said the “Liang protests mark the most pivotal moment in the Asian-American community” since Korean American businesses were burned to the ground during the 1992 Rodney King protests in Los Angeles.
For Kang, a Korean American journalist, the knotty, often discordant messages from Liang supporters were characteristic of a group without a solidified “political language”:
I cannot adequately describe the conflict in feeling like a race traitor for applauding Liang’s conviction while also feeling like a race traitor for questioning it…This is the stunted language of a people who do not yet know how to talk about injustice.
Liang will be sentenced on April 14.
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