Former New York Police Officer Peter Liang will not serve time behind bars for the death of Akai Gurley. Gurley died from a bullet fired by Liang that had ricocheted off a wall in a dark stairwell in a Brooklyn housing project in November 2014.
Outside the courthouse on April 19, sentencing day, scores of angry protesters and more than 200 cops gathered, including those from the NYPD's counterterrorism unit. Metal barricades were put up to control potential clashes between Liang supporters and Gurley protesters. Emotions ran high. Liang’s supporters held up “One tragedy, two victims” signs and chanted “Justice for Liang.” Gurley’s supporters chanted, "Indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail. The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”
There had been accusations that the prosecutors were scapegoating Liang because of his Chinese American heritage. Liang, a mild-mannered 28-year-old, is the son of Chinese immigrants. He grew up and attended school in New York's Chinatown. His mother was a garment factory worker who eventually became a travel agent. His father worked as a cook.
After his conviction in February - the first NYPD officer to be convicted in a fatal shooting in the line of duty since 2005 - the Asian American community quickly coalesced in his support. Numerous rallies around the country were organized, many drawing as many as 10,000 supporters, and funds were raised to help in Liang’s legal fees.
The Asian community was justifiably concerned that the presiding judge Danny K. Chun, himself an Asian American of Korean descent, might feel compelled to hand down a harsh sentence for fear of being perceived as “being soft” on another Asian.
Although the Brooklyn District Attorney had sought a conviction aggressively, he also asked the Chun to spare Liang prison time. He noted in a letter to Chun, "Because the incarceration of the defendant is not necessary to protect the public, and because of the unique circumstances of this case, the People do not believe that a prison sentence is warranted."
Prior to sentencing, Chun received petitions and letters from the Asian-American community to show leniency. However, as Michael Farkas, the president of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association told The New York Times in a story published on April 12, "There are some highly emotional feelings about this case, as everybody knows. But bottom line: I know for a fact that he will do the right thing as he sees fit."
As Chun handed down the sentence of five years’ probation and 800 hours of community service, he said, “Shooting that gun and killing someone was probably the last thing in his [Liang’s] mind and probably never entered his mind at all. This was not an intentional act ... There's no evidence, either direct or circumstantial, that the defendant was aware of Akai Gurley's presence.” Chun also reduced the manslaughter conviction to criminally negligent homicide, a non-violent felony, because he felt the prosecutors failed to show Liang ‘consciously disregarded’ a substantial risk of death.”
As expected, the lenient sentence drew criticism from African Americans, who have demanded greater accountability from a system they claimed that does not value black lives. Gurley’s supporters told reporters, “There's no justice.” However, a defense lawyer who was not involved with the case commented, "… the judge called it the way he sees it." He said the criminally negligent homicide finding was more in line with what happened — "a terrible accident."
Liang’s supporters were relieved. Liang himself talked briefly with Gurley’s friend and mother of his 3-year-old daughter, telling her how deeply sorry he was for their loss, saying, “I know you lost a loved one, a provider. I couldn't be sadder."
Although Liang dodged a 15-year prison term, his life (and those of the Gurley family) will never be the same again. The kid who grew up dreaming of becoming a police officer will have to grapple with a dream unrealized.
There are no winners, no matter how you look at it.