Sometimes when both sides in a criminal trial are in agreement, it’s for the simple reason that the facts are uncontested and incontrovertible. In the trial of Peter Liang, the New York City police officer facing manslaughter and other charges, nobody disputes the basic facts: On November 20, 2014, Liang and his partner, both rookie cops, were on a “vertical patrol” inside the Louis Heaton Pink Houses, a public housing complex in East New York, when Liang’s gun went off. Twenty-eight-year-old Akai Gurley, unarmed and doing nothing wrong, was on the landing one floor below when Liang’s bullet ricocheted off a wall in the poorly lit stairwell and ripped into his heart, killing him.
There are other, though more complicated, points of consensus between the prosecution and defense. As prosecutors and Liang’s attorneys made their final summations Tuesday morning, both sides insisted that it is Liang, and Liang alone — not the New York Police Department or American policing in general — who is on trial in State Supreme Court in Downtown Brooklyn.
For Liang’s defense, that assertion is critical in protecting Liang from his own terrible timing. As the Daily News noted a year ago, of the 179 people killed by New York City police officers in the previous fifteen years, only three cases led to indictment, and only one to conviction. But Liang shot Gurley just months after an NYPD officer was caught on video choking Eric Garner to death on Staten Island and Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In the weeks after Liang shot Gurley, the public uproar over unchecked police violence was further amplified by the non-indictments in the deaths of Garner and Brown. Whatever benefit of the doubt police might have enjoyed from a jury a few years ago, Liang’s defense team evidently feels that hiding behind a badge in 2016 would do their client more harm than good. “Policing in America is not on trial here,” said Robert E. Brown, one of Liang’s attorneys. “What’s on trial here is the evidence presented by these prosecutors against my client in this courtroom. He shouldn’t be made a scapegoat for any other thing that’s happening.”
But in key respects, Liang’s defense is indeed putting the NYPD on trial. In Brown’s wide-ranging summation, he slammed the NYPD academy’s CPR training as cursory and inadequate; he suggested Liang’s trigger, which had a slightly lighter pull weight than the twelve pounds the NYPD advertises as its standard, might have been responsible for the gun’s discharge; and he noted that many police witnesses over the last two weeks of the trial have confirmed that far from being reckless, Liang was in line with commonly accepted practice when he drew his gun in a residential stairwell absent any evident threat. At the core of Brown’s argument was a variation on the sentiment crystalized in a quickly deleted tweet on an NYPD Twitter account the month after Liang shot Gurley, which featured Colonel Nathan Jessup’s climactic monologue (“You want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!”) from A Few Good Men.
“It would have been very easy, when [Liang] went into the darkened stairwell, to say, ‘You know what, they don’t pay me enough to go in there.’ But he took an oath,” Brown told the jury. “You want your police officers to protect you. You want police to do their jobs. And to make a determination that his actions were criminal, that his actions were unjustified by taking his gun out, would send a chilling effect to the police officers in New York City.”
Accidents are regrettable, Brown effectively argued, but public housing is dangerous, and if you want order imposed on such places, it’s going to be imposed by cops who may have their guns drawn, and if those guns sometimes kill innocent people, it’s too bad, but it’s hardly the sort of injustice that finds remedy in a criminal court. Liang was unlucky — but unremarkable. He was a cop doing what cops do.
Like Liang’s lawyers, prosecutors started with the distinction between Liang’s shooting of Akai Gurley and any wider phenomenon of police violence. “The defense is right,” Assistant District Attorney Joseph Alexis told jurors in his own summation yesterday. “This isn’t about other things that happened in our country. It’s not about other police killings. It’s about this police killing.” But in Alexis’s argument, the distinction isn’t about protecting Liang from the taint of association with other police violence. Rather, Liang’s prosecution is the bulwark against any broader indictment of police. “It is our position that Peter Liang is not the same as the police officers who bravely keep us safe every day,” Alexis said. “Convicting Peter Liang is not a conviction of the New York City Police Department.”
Alexis seized on Liang’s own testimony, delivered through bouts of tears on Monday, in which Liang responded to a question about why he returned to the dark stairwell shortly after firing the deadly shot and retreating back into the hallway. “I was just looking for the bullet casing,” Liang answered. This statement, Alexis suggested, amounts to a confession that Liang’s primary concern was to escape responsibility for his actions. “If you can get the shell casing, and you put the shell casing under a microscope, you can match the shell casing to the gun that fired it,” Alexis said. “[Liang and his partner] wanted to hush this up. They wanted to keep it quiet from everybody.”
This cravenness marks Liang as no true police officer, Alexis argued. “There are proud, brave cops who go out every day and patrol every day and every night to keep us safe,” he said. “We honor those cops. We applaud those cops. But Peter Liang falls short of that. Peter Liang is not one of those cops.” Liang’s conduct violated a basic social contract with police, Alexis said. “In exchange for the power we give to police, the power to keep us all safe, the police have a sacred trust that they fulfill, a sacred trust with each community. That trust is that the police department commits to thoroughly train its officers before arming them with deadly weapons and sending them into our communities. That’s why police officers go through rigorous and thorough training.” Liang’s crime, Alexis said, was to disregard that training.
Following the closing statements, Judge Danny Chun explained to the jury the charges brought against Liang, which include second-degree manslaughter, second-degree assault, second-degree reckless endangerment, criminally negligent homicide, and official misconduct.
Jurors deliberated for about an hour Tuesday before the end of the day. They resume their deliberations this morning.