Trial Begins for NYPD Officer Who Killed Unarmed Brooklyn Man in a Dark Stairwell

Akai Gurley was killed by a bullet from the gun of NYPD officer Peter Liang in East New York on November 20, 2014.
Akai Gurley was killed by a bullet from the gun of NYPD officer Peter Liang in East New York on November 20, 2014.

NYPD officer Peter Liang's trial on charges stemming from the death of Akai Gurley began in Brooklyn Supreme Court on Monday morning with prosecutors and Liang's defense lawyers making opening statements.

When the 28-year-old Gurley bled to death on the fifth-floor landing of a public housing building in East New York's Pink Houses in November 2014, his heart torn open by a bullet fired by Liang, New York City and the nation at large were already in the midst of a reckoning with the issue of police violence and its disproportionate impact on poor and black citizens. Gurley died four months after Eric Garner's death at the hands of NYPD officers was captured on video, and three and a half months after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, set off nationwide protests. In the weeks immediately after Gurley died, grand juries declined to indict the officers who killed Garner and Brown.

Amid the firestorm of protest rekindled by the non-indictments, the Brooklyn district attorney's office announced that, unlike the overwhelming majority of officers who shoot and kill civilians, Liang would be indicted, though not for murder; the top charges against Liang are second-degree manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of fifteen years in prison, and criminally negligent homicide.

"Akai Gurley is dead today because he crossed paths with Peter Liang," Assistant District Attorney Marc Fliedner told the jury in his opening statement. "Nobody disputes that." Fliedner then laid out a timeline of events: Liang and his partner Shaun Landau, both less than two years out of the police academy, were on a patrol in the Pink Houses on the night of November 20, 2014. Not unusually, the lights on the seventh- and eighth-floor landings of the stairwell were out. Neither Liang nor Landau saw or heard anything amiss, but Liang opened the door to the stairwell with his gun drawn and flashlight on. Turning into the stairwell, Liang's gun discharged, the bullet ricocheting off a wall one floor down, where Gurley and his girlfriend, Melissa Butler, had just entered the seventh-floor landing. Gurley and Butler, not knowing who had fired the shot and fearing for their lives, fled down the stairs, but on the fourth floor, Butler realized Gurley was no longer with her. Turning back, she found him in a pool of blood on the fifth-floor landing. The bullet had pierced his heart.

"What the fuck just happened?" Landau asked his partner. "It went off by accident," Liang responded. "I'm fired." Liang maintains his gun discharged by accident, but Fliedner contends Gurley's death is Liang's fault. "Peter Liang broke rule after rule after rule," he told the jury Monday morning. The NYPD patrol guide directs officers not to put their finger on the trigger of their weapon unless they are prepared to fire, but, Fliedner says, "Liang recklessly ignored that rule." Fliedner further discounted the notion of accidental discharge, noting that the NYPD customizes its service weapons with heavy-pull triggers. "The only reason Liang's weapon fired is because he pulled the trigger," he said.

Though Landau urged him to call the incident in, as police protocol requires, Liang hesitated, Fliedner said, dithering for precious minutes on the eighth floor as Gurley bled out three landings below. While the officers argued, Butler had knocked on the door of Melissa Lopez, a housing employee who lived on the fourth floor. Lopez called 911, gave Butler a towel to stanch Gurley's bleeding, and stayed on the phone to relay instructions on how to perform CPR. Though both officers were trained in CPR, Fliedner told the jury, when they did finally descend the stairwell, neither made any move to assist Butler, by this time sobbing and covered in blood as she attempted to revive Gurley. Instead, Fliedner said, Liang walked past Butler and Gurley to speak with Lopez. "Neither [Liang] nor his partner asked if Akai Gurley was OK," Fliedner said. "Neither he nor his partner even checked to see if Akai Gurley was breathing or had a pulse. This police officer had just shot an innocent person, this man had just shot an innocent man, and he never even knelt to try to fix what he'd done."

One of Liang's defense lawyers, Rae Downes Koshetz, who oversaw police disciplinary proceedings as NYPD deputy commissioner of trials earlier in her career, used her opening statement to ask jurors to put themselves in the position of a green police officer, pulling overtime because of a recent shooting nearby, about to ascend a darkened stairway to a roof in the Pink Houses, "the most dangerous place in a dangerous place." There is no rule against officers drawing their weapons, Koshetz told the jury, and, despite the prosecution's contention, Liang was holding his gun properly, with his finger along its side, the weapon pointed down. "Suddenly, the gun accidentally discharges," she said. The bullet's trajectory, skidding off a cinderblock wall and into Gurley's heart, was, she said, "a million-to-one possibility," the damage so immediately devastating that "no amount of CPR would have saved his life."

Koshetz urged the jury not to be influenced by the conversation about police violence that has swelled in the past year and a half. "The NYPD is not on trial here," she said, "nor is any other police department in the country. This is not a referendum on policing in the United States in which you cast a vote, send a message about policing in general.

"Nor is this case about retribution or getting even," Koshetz said, over the prosecution's objection. In a counterintuitive rhetorical flourish, she invoked Martin Luther King Jr. in defense of a police officer charged in the killing of an innocent and unarmed black man: "As Martin Luther King famously said, 'An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind,' " she told the jury.

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After a brief recess, the prosecution began calling witnesses, including Lopez, and played in its horrifying entirety her seven-minute 911 call. 

When court broke for lunch, members of Gurley's family spoke briefly outside of the courthouse. "We miss you so much," said Hertencia Peterson, Gurley's aunt, addressing her nephew. "Nothing in this world can ever bring you back. But what this family wants is for the one that took your life to be held accountable. To let everyone know that you had goals, dreams, and most of all, you were loved."

Liang's trial continues tomorrow and is expected to last several weeks.


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