NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Peter Liang, the former NYPD officer convicted in the accidental shooting death of an unarmed man in a darkened stairwell, will not go to prison.
Liang was convicted in February of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Akai Gurley at a public housing project. Gurley was walking down to the lobby and Liang was patrolling the inside of the building in 2014. Liang opened a door to the stairwell and fired his weapon once accidentally. The bullet ricocheted and struck Gurley.
On Tuesday, Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Danny Chun reduced the manslaughter conviction to criminally negligent homicide before sentencing Liang to five years of probation and 800 hours of community service.
As CBS2’s Hazel Sanchez reported, Gurley’s family was furious upon hearing the ruling. They called Liang’s sentence an injustice.
“Justice was not served, but don’t worry. What goes around comes around,” said Gurley’s aunt, Hertencia Petersen. “Sooner or later, Peter Liang – if not him in his lifetime, someone in his family is going to feel our pain.”
Petersen added: “What happened to the justice for Akai Gurley — the deceased that can’t breathe; the deceased that cannot even speak to his daughter?”
Kimberly Ballinger, the mother of Gurley’s 3-year-old daughter, said she was stunned by the judge’s decisions Tuesday.
“It’s just shocking that he reduced it,” Ballinger said. “I felt that the jury verdict was correct.”
Gurley’s girlfriend, Melissa Butler, was in the stairwell with Gurley when he was killed. She delivered a victim impact statement before the judge issued his ruling.
“Peter Liang, I want you to know that when you stole Akai’s life. You stole mine as well,” Butler said. “And because of your reckless actions, my life will never be the same.”
Liang then spoke himself. He looked directly at Gurley’s family as he expressed his remorse.
“The shot was accidental and someone was dead,” Liang said. “I apologize to Miss Butler and to Akai Gurley’s family. I wish I could undo what happened.”
Butler spoke in court, but was too overwhelmed with grief and disappointment to speak outside the courtroom. Gurley’s aunt spoke instead.
“This young lady was with him when he took his last breath. When he took his last breath! How on earth can you say it’s okay to murder and not be held accountable,” she said.
As CBS2’s Lou Young reported, the judge though, said it was far from murder. In fact he decided it wasn’t even manslaughter, and reduced the conviction to criminally negligent homicide.
“It was not an intentional act. This was an act of criminal negligence, and as such I find incarceration is not necessary,” Danny Chun, Kings County Supreme Court, said.
Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson recommended probation and home confinement, but not prison time.
“Because his incarceration is not necessary to protect the public, and due to the unique circumstances of this case, a prison sentence is not warranted,” Thompson said in a statement.
Thompson took issue with the fact that the judge reduced the jury’s verdict.
“My office vigorously prosecuted Peter Liang for manslaughter because the evidence established that his conduct was criminal and the rule of law demanded that he be held accountable for his actions in taking Akai Gurley’s life,” Thompson said in the statement, adding that a jury agreed and convicted Liang.
“While our sentencing recommendation was fair under the unique circumstances of this case, we respectfully disagree with the judge’s decision to reduce the jury’s verdict and will fight to reverse it on appeal,” Thompson said in the statement.
A spokesman for Liang’s family said they were pleased with the sentencing. But Liang still plans to appeal his guilty verdict.
“It is absolutely good news. But most of the people in the community think that he should not have been indicted,” said Liang supporter Yungman Lee. “But under the circumstances, this is good news.”
Liang was fired from the NYPD shortly after the February jury verdict in the death of Akai Gurley.
The 28-year-old Gurley was unarmed when he was shot by Liang, who was conducting a vertical patrol of the dimly lit stairwell of the Pink Houses in East New York with his partner, Shaun Landau.
At trial, Liang testified in his own defense that he was terrified and never meant to shoot anyone. Both he and his partner said they felt unqualified to help Gurley as he lay bleeding on the stairwell floor. Gurley’s girlfriend gave him CPR as a neighbor yelled instructions from a 911 operator on the telephone.
Last week, Liang’s attorneys sought to have the case thrown out based on juror misconduct after Michael Vargas, a juror on the panel which convicted Liang, omitted the fact that his own father was convicted of a similar crime.
But the judge ruled that Vargas did not intentionally lie to the court and the verdict would stand.
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