NEW YORK (AP) — A rookie police officer pleaded not guilty Wednesday to manslaughter, official misconduct and other charges in the shooting death of a man in a pitch black stairwell of a Brooklyn public housing complex.
Officer Peter Liang appeared briefly in a Brooklyn courtroom as the charges, which also include criminally negligent homicide and assault, were unsealed in the death of 28-year-old Akai Gurley. Liang's attorney, Stephen Worth, maintained the shooting was an accident. The officer was released without bail.
Gurley was killed on Nov. 20 while visiting the Louis Pink Houses, a public housing complex in the 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. 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, who made it down two flights of stairs before collapsing.
Assistant District Attorney Mark Fliedner told a judge that absent any clear threat, Liang was supposed to keep his weapon pointed down with his finger off the trigger.
"The defendant ignored this training. ... As a result, Mr. Akai Gurley is dead," he said.
Immediately after the shooting, Fliedner said, Liang and his partner retreated to the eighth floor and argued over whether to report that Liang had discharged his weapon instead of rendering aid.
"It was an accident. I'm going to be fired," his partner recalled Liang saying, according to court documents.
When other officers responded and started to help Gurley, Liang came down the stairs, but "just stood there," Fliedner said. Gurley died at a hospital.
The 27-year-old Liang, who entered his plea through his attorney, remained expressionless and never spoke during the hearing. Some spectators, including family members of Gurley, jeered as he walked past them to exit the courtroom.
At a news conference, District Attorney Ken 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.
Worth denied that Liang did nothing after the shooting.
"It's a tortured attempt to make the defendant look heartless. Nothing could be further from the truth," he said.
Thompson said after the shooting that he would convene a grand jury to investigate, and the results came back less than three months later, about the time it takes grand juries to consider other criminal cases.
He said prosecutors owed it to Gurley to do a thorough investigation. He said they interviewed dozens of witnesses and he visited the stairwell himself.
Even before the shooting, the New York Police Department had been changing how it assigns and trains new officers. Under former Commissioner Raymond Kelly, the NYPD assigned rookie officers as reinforcements in parts of the city that have seen increases in crime. The Pink Houses had been the scene of a recent spike in shooting, robberies and assaults.
Under William Bratton, new officers are no longer funneled into high-crime precincts as extra manpower, but instead are assigned mentors who are more experienced officers and rotate through different jobs at precincts. Bratton said Thursday that police are reviewing whether to pair seasoned officers with newer officers during stairwell patrols.
The case was closely watched following the Dec. 3 grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. That decision — along with the another grand jury's refusal to charge an officer in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri — prompted mass protests decrying the grand jury system as biased, and fueled an already growing discord between the city's rank-and-file police and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was viewed by critics as not publicly supporting police after the decision.
On Wednesday, de Blasio said it was not wise to compare the cases. Garner was black, the officer involved was white. Gurley was black; Liang is Chinese-American.
"I think what matters is, at the end of at the end of the entire process, do people think there was a sense of fairness," he said.
Said Thompson: "This case has nothing to do with Ferguson or Eric Garner or any other case. This case has to do with an innocent may who lost his life and a young New York City police officer who has now been charged with taking his life."
The last time an officer was indicted in New York was 2012, when Richard Haste was charged with manslaughter in the shooting death of Ramarley Graham, but the case was tossed on a technicality and another grand jury declined to indict the officer. When police face criminal charges, the case is usually decided by a judge and not a jury, the defendant's choice. In 2007, three of five officers involved in the 50-shot death of Sean Bell were indicted on manslaughter charges but were acquitted by a judge. They were later fired.