One Police Plaza

Peter Liang: Guilty Verdict — But Maybe Not Guilty

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Ex-cop Peter Liang was guilty of criminal negligent homicide in the fatal shooting of Akai Gurley in the stairwell of a high-crime Brooklyn housing project. But to this reporter, he did not seem guilty of the more serious crime of manslaughter, of which he was convicted by a Brooklyn jury.

Maybe, as the Daily News suggested, the jury’s verdict, following the fatal shootings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and other police shootings around the country, was a message that “the public’s opinion on police killings has radically changed.” More likely, the verdict was due to inept lawyering on the part of Liang’s two attorneys.

Liang dumped the PBA’s veteran criminal attorney, Steve Worth. Instead, he chose Robert Brown and Rae Koshetz, attorneys he felt more comfortable with but who had far less criminal experience — certainly none in such a high-profile police case as his. Worth may not be warm and fuzzy, but he’s a pro. He represented cops in both the Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima cases. You can’t get much more high-profile than that.

Brown’s and Koshetz’s first mistake was claiming Liang’s gun was defective, despite testimony to the contrary. Prosecutors then had each juror handle the gun, both during the trial and during deliberations. The gun required 11½ pounds of pressure to fire. That’s a lot of pressure. Since Brown and Koshetz provided no evidence to back up their claim that the gun was defective, jurors were left with the impression that Liang had fired deliberately, not accidentally.

 More importantly, they did not object immediately to the prosecution’s changed theory of the killing in its closing arguments: that Liang had actually pointed his gun before firing. This furthered the impression that he had fired deliberately at Gurley.

This was not only misleading but inaccurate. Remember that Liang’s bullet first struck a wall, then ricocheted, striking Gurley and killing him. The odds on that happening are longer than on winning the lottery.

Instead, Liang’s attorneys waited until the next day to object to the prosecutor’s remarks. They then asked for a mistrial, which Judge Danny Chun denied. By then, damage had been done.

What’s next for Liang? Likely an appeal, though on what grounds are not clear. Sentencing is on April 4.

Jail time for manslaughter has a max of 15 years, although serving jail time is not mandatory and lies within a judge’s discretion. As a Korean-American, Chun will be under tremendous pressure to appear “fair” in his sentencing. This could well mean Liang will serve serious time.

Finally, while Liang’s conviction might satisfy Gurley’s family and black activists, what message does it send to Asian New Yorkers? Michael Pantaleo, a white cop, was not indicted for the so-called “chokehold” death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Richard Neri, a white cop, was not indicted after he accidentally fired his weapon on the rooftop of another high-crime Brooklyn housing project, killing Timothy Stansbury, a black teenager. Four white cops who fired 41 bullets that killed the unarmed immigrant, Amadou Diallo, as he stood in the vestibule of his apartment building, were acquitted. The first cop who opened up on Diallo had mistaken his wallet for a gun.

Yet an Asian rookie cop who apparently fired his gun accidentally with an unforeseen, albeit tragic, outcome is found guilty of manslaughter.

Last Wednesday’s news conference at Police Plaza began with this statement, referring to the murder of a woman and two of her young children at a homeless shelter in Staten Island:

“We’re here to provide an update on the horrific incident that happened in Staten Island today — absolutely painful, painful incident that occurred. I’m going to go over with you what we know so far, I’m going to emphasize this is preliminary information. … [We] want to talk about this issue and take questions on this, and then we’ll talk about other police matters.”

The speaker was not Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, as you might have expected and who until last Wednesday hosted news conferences at Police Plaza.

Rather, it was Mayor Bill de Blasio.

As NYPD Confidential noted last week, it represents a new and more confident de Blasio on police matters, who last week performed Bratton’s job as Bratton stood silently at his side.

For a politician who ran on an anti-police platform, threw his arms around Al Sharpton, then after the fatal shootings of two police officers clung to Bratton like a life preserver, Mayor de Blasio seems to have crossed the threshold and become an avid NYPD supporter.

Make of that what you will.

Copyright © 2016 Leonard Levitt