N.Y. officer loses bid for new trial in shooting of unarmed black man

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 14, 2016 5:44 PM

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former New York City police officer on Thursday lost a bid to set aside his manslaughter conviction for killing an unarmed black man in a darkened public housing stairwell.

State Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun in Brooklyn rejected arguments from former Officer Peter Liang's lawyers that a juror with anti-police bias had lied in order to get onto the case.

The decision not to order a new trial clears the way for Liang's sentencing on Tuesday, two months after he was found guilty in connection with the shooting of Akai Gurley.

Gurley, 28, died when a bullet fired from Liang's gun on Nov. 20, 2014, ricocheted off a wall and into his chest as he walked in an unlit stairwell in a Brooklyn housing project.

The shooting added to nationwide protests in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, over the use of police force against minorities, though Liang, a Chinese-American, was not accused of intentionally killing Gurley.

Liang's conviction, meanwhile, sparked outcry among Chinese-American activists who said he was a scapegoat for police misconduct.

Following Thursday's hearing, Liang's supporters were confronted outside the courthouse by protesters who screamed that the former officer was a murderer.

Liang faces up to 15 years in prison, though prosecutors have recommended no prison time, drawing criticism from Gurley's family.

The request for a new trial centered on juror No. 9, Michael Vargas, who failed to disclose that his estranged father had been convicted of manslaughter when he was asked during jury selection whether any "close relatives" had been accused of a crime.

In testimony on Wednesday and Thursday, Vargas said he did not consider his father a member of his family and thus did not think of him when asked during jury selection.

Liang's lawyer, Paul Shechtman, emphasized that Vargas had disclosed his father's conviction during jury selection earlier that day in a separate case for which he was not selected.

Shechtman also pointed to Facebook messages in which Vargas criticized police brutality.

But Chun said Vargas may have given different answers due to the way each judge worded the question. He also said the defense had not shown Vargas' actions had violated Liang's right to a fair trial.

Liang will likely appeal the decision after he is sentenced.

The rookie officer testified at trial that a sudden noise startled him, causing his finger to slip onto the trigger and fire. It was only after descending the stairs, Liang said, that he realized someone had been hit.

Prosecutors argued Liang deliberately fired toward the sound recklessly.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Leslie Adler)