Conviction stands for ex-NYPD officer in stairwell shooting

AP News
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Posted: Apr 14, 2016 6:46 PM
Conviction stands for ex-NYPD officer in stairwell shooting

NEW YORK (AP) — A manslaughter conviction against a former police officer who accidentally shot an unarmed man in a public housing project stairwell will stand, a judge decided Thursday, ruling that a juror didn't intentionally withhold information about his father's criminal history during jury selection.

Peter Liang was convicted in February in the fatal shooting of 28-year-old Akai Gurley in the darkened stairwell in 2014. Gurley was walking down to the lobby and Liang was patrolling the inside of the building. Liang opened a door to the stairwell and fired his weapon once accidentally. The bullet ricocheted and struck Gurley.

Liang's attorneys argued that Juror No. 9, Michael Vargas, had a bias against police and withheld information about his dad's criminal record that would've seen him kicked off the jury.

Vargas had been questioned as part of a different jury pool on the same day Liang's jury was chosen. He told a judge that his father had been arrested when asked whether "anyone in his family" had been arrested or convicted of a crime.

"My father was arrested, I was a young child, I never knew the truth because they tried to hide it from me but I guess it was manslaughter," Vargas said.

He was dismissed from that case and later was brought in as a member of the prospective pool in Liang's case, where he was asked: "Have you or anyone close to you been accused of a crime?"

And he said no. Vargas testified at the post-trial hearing that he answered no in part because he wasn't close to his father and it didn't come to his mind. He had been raised in group homes and hadn't seen his dad in decades.

But after the verdict, he told a local newspaper that his father was sent to prison for accidentally shooting a friend to death.

Judge Danny Chun said Thursday that he believed Vargas, did not knowingly withhold the information during jury selection. He said Vargas had "rambled on" during the empanelment.

"The court finds he has a rambling way of answering questions and it is entirely conceivable he could not think of his father because he felt distance from his father, or he searched his mind and it didn't enter his mind," the judge said. "It was not a deliberate withholding."

Vargas also was questioned about posts he wrote and shared on Facebook, including some that were critical of police and others where he was complimentary of law enforcement.

"I'm disappointed," Liang's attorney, Paul Shechtman, said. "I think we showed this person lied about his father's manslaughter conviction."

Scott Rynecki, an attorney representing Gurley's family, said there was no legal basis to throw out Liang's verdict and that it "was the result of a fair and impartial jury."

Liang is scheduled to be sentenced April 19. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson has recommended Liang serve no prison time based in part on the uniqueness of the case. Thompson said Liang had no criminal record and posed "no future threat to public safety." He said the incarceration was not necessary to protect the public. The recommendation outraged some members of Gurley's family, who said they felt betrayed.

Chun could still send Gurley to prison; a manslaughter conviction could carry up to 15 years behind bars.