Officer's sentence in stairway killing leaves divide, dismay

AP News
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Posted: Apr 20, 2016 5:15 PM
Officer's sentence in stairway killing leaves divide, dismay

NEW YORK (AP) — From the start, the case of a rookie police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man in a public housing stairwell never fit neatly into the national debate over police brutality and minorities.

And Officer Peter Liang's sentencing this week to probation and community service — after a judge downgraded his manslaughter conviction — left dismay and questions on all sides, particularly among police accountability activists who had seen the case as a sign of progress. Liang was the first New York City officer convicted in an on-duty shooting since 2005.

"We're never going to be satisfied if we're looking for societal justice in a criminal prosecution," said Peter Moskos, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice sociology professor. "The jury or the judge is not supposed to be judging society."

Lang's 2014 shooting of Akai Gurley came just months after the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York prompted protests and a nationwide discussion of police killings. After grand juries declined to indict the white officers who killed Brown and Garner, activists demanding accountability looked to Liang's trial.

But Liang's case was different in significant ways. Liang is himself a minority who didn't see his victim. He was a rookie patrolling a pitch-dark stairwell with his gun drawn while Gurley, 28, headed down to the lobby. Liang said he was startled by a noise, fired accidentally and didn't immediately realize his bullet had hit someone.

"How can you raise a claim that this is emblematic of police officers gunning down black people without warrant?" said David Klinger, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminal justice professor.

Prosecutors argued Liang was reckless with his weapon and callous afterward: He didn't try to revive Gurley, standing by while Gurley's girlfriend frantically did. Liang, 28, later explained he thought it better to wait for professional help.

A jury convicted him of manslaughter, but Brooklyn state Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun said prosecutors hadn't proven key elements of that charge and reduced it to criminally negligent homicide, a lowest-level felony, and there was no need for prison "to have a just sentence in this case."

While Chun announced his decision, Liang and Gurley supporters waited outside the courthouse, on opposite sides of a street and separated by police barriers, in a sign of the divisive outpouring the case has aroused.

"By escaping jail time, Peter Liang faces no meaningful legal accountability for killing Akai," Gurley's mother, Sylvia Palmer, said in a statement Wednesday. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called for "an examination of the deference and privileges afforded to police officers that are not extended to other defendants."

But Liang's supporters felt he was unfairly singled out for prosecution to make a political point.

"If Peter should get charged, then his partner should get charged, too," said Jerry Chan, 43, who was among organizers of large demonstrations protesting Liang's conviction this winter. Liang's partner wasn't charged and testified during the trial. Like Liang, he was fired after the verdict.

The activism around the case split along complicated fault lines, pointing up its complexities. Few police officers — who often come to court en masse to support accused officers — appeared in the audience at Liang's trial. And while 10,000 mostly Chinese-Americans rallied in New York and elsewhere to support Liang, other Asian-Americans said they were taking on the wrong fight by supporting an officer who killed an innocent man.

The sentencing may not be the last word in the case: Liang is appealing his conviction, and prosecutors plan to appeal its reduction. Meanwhile, Gurley's family is pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit.

Gurley's domestic partner, Kim Ballinger, said the most difficult question the case has left for her is how to explain it to their 3-year-old daughter.

"How do I tell her the man who killed your father was never really punished for it?" she asked.

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Associated Press Writer Deepti Hajela contributed to this report.

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Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @jennpeltz.