FILE – In this Feb. 11, 2015, file photo, New York City rookie police officer Peter Liang arrives at court in New York for arraignment. Opening statements are expected Monday, Jan. 25, 2016 in Liang?s manslaughter trial for the 2014 death of Akai Gurley. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
NEW YORK (AP) — Even prosecutors agree that rookie New York police officer Peter Liang didn’t mean to shoot and kill Akai Gurley in a pitch black stairwell in 2014.
But Liang will go on trial this week for manslaughter anyway in a prosecution that stands in contrast to other cases around the country in which officers intentionally used deadly force against other unarmed black men but escaped criminal charges. Opening statements are set for Monday in state court in Brooklyn, where Liang is expected to take the witness stand and claim he fired his weapon by accident.
Defense attorney Robert Brown has called the shooting a “terrible tragedy” — not a crime.
But advocates for stricter police accountability see the second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and other charges brought by Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson as justified. They say the case offers a counterpoint to decisions by grand juries declining to indict white police officers in other killings, including those of Eric Garner on Staten Island and Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.
The case “is a good sign the DA’s office is moving in the right direction,” said Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele, senior community organization for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “But we have a long way to go.”
Added Gurley’s aunt, Hertencia Peterson: “This is for everyone who has not yet gotten justice.”
Chinese-American supporters, however, say Liang has been made a scapegoat for past injustices.
“He just happens to be a very convenient person to go after,” said Phil Gim, who’s helped organize rallies supporting Liang.
Liang had been an officer for 18 months on the night of Nov. 20, 2014, when he and a partner were patrolling a Brooklyn housing project amid reports of a spike in violent crime.
Liang had his gun drawn as they descended onto an eighth-floor landing in a stairwell where the lights had burned out, prosecutors said. At the same time, the 28-year-old Gurley and a friend he was visiting entered the door into the seventh-floor landing. Liang — his gun in his left hand and a flashlight in his right — fired a shot. The bullet ricocheted and struck Gurley in the chest, who made it down two flights of stairs before collapsing.
According to grand jury testimony by Liang’s partner, Liang repeatedly told him, “It went off by accident” and fretted that he would be fired. The two then bickered for at least two minutes about which one should call a supervisor to report the discharge.
Prosecutors allege Liang acted recklessly in his handling of his weapon and that he and his partner did nothing to help Gurley, even after they knew he had been shot. Court papers describe the pair walking around the dying victim and down a flight of stairs as the weeping friend tried to give him CPR.
Prosecutors also have accused Liang of violating New York Police Department policies instructing officers who draw their guns to keep their finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.
“We don’t believe that Officer Liang intended to kill Mr. Gurley,” Thompson said last year while announcing the charges. “But he had his finger on the trigger and he fired the gun.”
Liang shot his weapon, he added, “when there was no threat.”
The defense has suggested that Liang’s gun was defective and contends that he was too distraught to help Gurley. A supervisor who arrived at the scene has described the officer as being “pale, unsteady on his feet and incoherent.”
The slaying recalled two others by officers patrolling Brooklyn housing projects — the shootings of 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury on a rooftop in 2004 and of 13-year-old Nicholas Heyward Jr. while carrying a toy gun. Neither officer was charged.
Gurley’s family has brought a wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of his estate and his young daughter.
He had planned to move the child and her mother with him to Florida, where his own mother lives, before his life was cut short, his aunt said.
“It’s how Akai was killed that’s impossible to accept,” Peterson said. “We’re still in shock.”
Associated Press Writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.