New York City police officer Peter Liang, right, and his attorney Stephen Worth leave the courtroom after Liang pleaded not guilty during his arraignment at Brooklyn Supreme Court on Wednesday. (AP/Mary Altaffer)
Two months after a Staten Island grand jury refused to indict an officer for the chokehold death of Eric Garner, which was recorded on video, a Brooklyn grand jury charged an officer with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and other offenses for the single shot fired in a pitch-dark hallway that killed Akai Gurley.
“This case has nothing to with Ferguson or Eric Garner or any other case,” Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson told reporters, referring to no grand jury charges for a Ferguson, Mo. officer who shot an unarmed black man.
“This case has to do with an innocent man who lost his life and a young New York City police officer is accused of taking his life,” Thompson said at the press conference immediately following officer Peter Liang’s arraignment.
But others were not so sure that the Staten Island case did not affect the outcome in Brooklyn.
Gerald Shargel, a partner at Winston & Strawn who is not involved in the case, said the “mindset” of grand jurors could have changed.
He said he was also “curious to know how hard the prosecution pushed to have the grand jury return an indictment.”
In addition to whatever other defenses could arise from the evidence, Shargel said a key defense strategy should be that Liang should not “be a scapegoat for what happened in Staten Island and Ferguson.”
Liang appeared briefly on Wednesday before Brooklyn Supreme Court Acting Justice Danny Chun as the charges, which also include second-degree assault and official misconduct, were unsealed.
He pleaded not guilty and was released on his own recognizance.
Liang’s attorney, Stephen Worth of Worth, Longworth & London, said the shooting was an accident. And he questioned the “summary” grand jury presentation both in and outside the courtroom. There was “clear intent to get an indictment all along,” Worth told reporters, but he declined to comment on whether the Garner matter played any role in the case against his client.
Thompson, the son of a police officer, said it was “totally baseless” to assert he had an agenda with the case.
He said after the Gurley shooting that he would convene a grand jury to investigate. Thompson said his office interviewed dozens of witnesses and he visited the stairwell himself.
Gurley was killed on Nov. 20 while visiting the Louis Pink Houses, a public housing complex in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, to get his hair braided. Liang, who had been an officer for about 18 months, and his partner were patrolling the complex, where reports of violent crime had spiked.
The stairwell was completely dark and Liang had his gun drawn as they descended onto an eighth-floor landing, prosecutors said at the arraignment.
Meanwhile, Gurley opened the door into the seventh-floor landing after giving up his wait for an elevator. Liang, gun in his left hand and a flashlight in his right, fired a shot, prosecutors said. The bullet ricocheted and struck Gurley in the chest. He made it down two flights of stairs before collapsing.
Assistant District Attorney Marc Fliedner, head of the office’s civil rights bureau, said Liang was supposed to have kept his finger off the trigger and to the side of the weapon.
“The defendant ignored this training. … As a result, Mr. Akai Gurley is dead,” he said.
Thompson said prosecutors didn’t believe Liang intended to kill Gurley. “But he had his finger on the trigger and he fired the gun,” he said.
Stacy Caplow, a criminal law professor at Brooklyn Law School, said given the details about the case that have become public so far, the charges of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide are the “most appropriate, highest degree” of charges that could have been brought against Liang.
To prove that Liang is guilty of the manslaughter charge, Caplow said the prosecution will be faced with the challenge of showing that Liang was reckless, which is defined in state law as a person committing an offense while knowing there is a “substantial and unjustifiable” risk in doing so.
But Michael Shapiro, a former prosecutor and defense attorney at Carter Ledyard & Milburn, said he did not envy the task ahead for prosecutors.
“Was [Liang] negligent? Maybe,” said Shapiro. “Was he criminally negligent? That’s a much tougher standard.”
The state court’s criminal jury instructions said a person acts with criminal negligence in a death when they engage “in blameworthy conduct so serious that it creates or contributes to a substantial and unjustifiable risk that another person’s death will occur.”
It also includes a failure to perceive the risk so as to constitute “a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.”
Shapiro said it could be tough to convince a jury that Liang acted so unreasonably under the circumstances.
“Virtually anybody put in that situation” risked firing a gun, said Shapiro.
“People don’t like to convict cops, because they understand most cops are out there protecting them,” he said.
But, Marvyn Kornberg of Queens said, “emotion always helps the prosecution because it’s always us against them, law enforcement versus the defense.”
Kornberg has represented a number of officers in the past, including Justin Volpe, who pleaded guilty mid-trial for his role in the assault of Abner Louima.
Thompson was part of the Eastern District prosecution team in the case.
Thompson “knows the difference between what happened in that case and what happened in this case. This case doesn’t call for indictment,” said Kornberg.
Though “everybody’s looking for a cop’s scalp,” Kornberg said Liang was “doing what the police department permits him to do, in a dangerous situation in a darkened hallway doing vertical patrol.”
In 2004, another police officer killed a young man in a stairwell while on patrol in Brooklyn. Officer Richard Neri Jr. fired a single shot as his partner opened a stairwell door and the bullet hit Timothy Stansbury, age 19.
Then-Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes empaneled a grand jury, which refused to indict. Neri was also represented by Worth, Longworth & London.
Stansbury’s parents filed a civil action that the city settled for $2 million in 2007.
When Thompson campaigned to unseat Hynes, one line of criticism—albeit more under the lens of stop and frisk practices—was that Hynes’ allegedly failed to hold police accountable for misconduct.