By JL Chan
(Note from the Editor: AsAmNews welcomes commentaries and insights on both sides of issues concerning Asian American. The following is a guest commentary from a reader.)
I was among the tens of thousands rallying in support of Officer Peter Liang at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn on Feb 20 2016. While I had mixed emotions about attending the protest which I found out about on Facebook, I felt compelled to do my part to speak out against the persecution of a man whose mistakes do not rise to the level of criminality, but must bear the wrongs of a nation and the anger of many.
As an Asian American, I am not supporting Peter Liang on the basis of our shared ethnicity or that I too, grew up in New York City’s Chinatown as an immigrant to this country over four decades ago. I am supporting him because the facts of the case do not add up to that of the manslaughter charge levied against him. Even prior precedents have yielded no conviction for accidental deaths under less clear cut circumstances. His conviction was unfair and unjust, selective prosecution, as many protest signs read.
There was clearly a different and harsher standard applied to Liang. Even setting aside standard and precedents, the specific set of circumstances in Liang’s case on its own merit is more akin to accidental death than manslaughter. There was no conscious intentional recklessness involved. In fact, it should have been settled as a civil case and not that of a criminal case. There should not have been an indictment in the first place. It was a tragic accident, not a crime.
I was at the protest with some college friends. None of us have participated in prior demonstrations before but felt the Liang case was so egregious that we simply could not turn the other cheek. I met a couple from New Jersey there with their two young sons, and another couple where the Caucasian husband had insisted that his Asian wife attend. We all shared the same sentiment that Liang’s conviction was a blatant miscarriage of justice. It was inspiring and a powerful experience seeing so many Asian Americans in a show of solidarity in support of justice for Liang. It was about standing up for what is right.
When I first heard about the accidental discharge from Liang’s gun and the subsequent death of Akai Gurley, I knew then that Liang’s fate was sealed and written. The incident took place within a politically and racially charged climate of anti-police brutality and no indictments for Black lives lost at the hands of police officers. Never mind that Liang was an odd choice as the poster boy for police brutality, there was a hunger to convict a cop at all costs and Liang was Asian American, an easy target. It would be the perfect storm.
This is where I say that the overzealous prosecution got it wrong. And the jury got it wrong. The unique circumstances of this case are different from the others where Black lives were lost. There was no direct shooting at a victim, no conscious intention to kill, only that of an accidental discharge and the blind ricocheting of the bullet. It was an accident. Peter Liang is not a criminal and should not have been prosecuted as one.
As many were quick to offer their condemnations, some facts of the case became muddled with people passing judgment based on misinformation maliciously leaked to bolster the case to hang Liang.
On Nov 20 2014, Liang and his partner Shaun Landau, both rookie NYPD police officers, were conducting vertical patrols in the city’s housing projects of the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York, Brooklyn, known to be a dangerous place, where the lights have been in disrepair for months and the stairwell was pitch black. Liang and his partner were on the 8th floor when he was startled by a loud noise and his gun went off. Incredulously, the discharged bullet hit the wall and then ricocheted in a downward trajectory piercing Akai Gurley’s heart, who was entering into the darkened stairwell one floor below on the 7th floor. While the mathematical probability of this fluke accident happening is probably close to an infinitesimal zero, it happened, and Gurley died from the ricocheted bullet. It was plain and obvious that Liang had never intended to fire at Gurley. Liang did not even know that Gurley was at the lower level of the stairwell when his gun went off.
Immediately after the shot went off, Liang and his partner returned to the hallway, where they debated who would call their supervisor. It was in the hallway that Liang worried about his job due to the accidental discharge, all the while not knowing that the bullet had hit someone. It was only after Liang then went back into the stairwell to look for the bullet did he hear Gurley’s girlfriend. It wasn’t until Liang went down the stairs did he realized a man had been hit.
Fliedner, the lead prosecutor in the case, said in court that a report by the Daily News — which claimed Liang texted his union representative right after the shooting — was FALSE.
“We don’t believe [Liang] intended to kill Mr. Gurley,” Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson told reporters, “but he had his finger on the trigger.
While it is easy for the prosecutor to say that Liang should not have had his finger on the trigger, it is not unreasonable to expect when an officer is on high alert, he or she may have the discretion to be ready to fire at an imminent or unexpected threat in a dangerous environment. As a painful reminder of the constant dangers police officers face day-in, day-out, and especially so while patrolling in the city’s most dangerous, gun-ridden housing projects, two NYPD police officers were gunned down at point-blank range at a Bronx housing project on Feb 4 while on vertical patrol. The officers were doing the same type of vertical patrol at the Melrose Houses on E. 156th Street as Liang was doing at the Pink Houses. One of the officers was seriously wounded. The perpetrator, who was recently released from prison for armed robbery, ran to a friend’s apartment and then killed himself. The incident took place in a well-lit stairwell; Liang was facing a dark stairwell which was even more dangerous.
Studies have shown that 20% of law enforcement officers habitually put their finger on the trigger of their weapons when under stress without even realizing it. It is in recognition of police officers often being in the line of fire, and may make unintended mistakes in a dangerous situation, that our legal system has mostly not pursued criminal prosecution for similar to or worse offenses than Liang’s.
The prosecution had each juror handle a firearm similar to Liang’s in the courtroom to gauge the pressure needed to pull the trigger. That was nothing but a dog and pony show. There is no comparison between someone calmly pulling a trigger in a secure controlled environment versus having to react instantly on high alert in a dangerous environment.
The prosecution also accused Liang of being reckless in not providing immediate medical help to Gurley right after the incident causing his death. That is not exactly true. Liang and his partner did not know that Gurley was hit by the ricocheted bullet until quite a while later. And when they finally did, Gurley’s girlfriend was already applying CPR under the instruction of a 911 operator. And the real help did arrive within a few minutes after Liang and his partner found that Gurley was shot. Another point the prosecutor neglected to tell the jury is that the ricocheted bullet had pierced through Gurley’s heart, a fatal shot that no amount of CPR could have saved Gurley, not even if a surgeon was there at the scene.
As to Liang and his partner not offering to take over administering CPR, they both felt that they were not qualified to do a better job than that already being done due to inadequate training. A 6-year-old-girl died a few years earlier when a police officer refused to administer CPR because he was not properly trained and the officer was not charged. You can blame the system for that failure, as evidenced by the recent disciplinary action taken against the CPR instructor who taught Liang’s class for lapses in CPR instruction.
Peter Liang has been nothing but remorseful and apologetic. He was in shock after the accidental shooting. He broke down and cried by Gurley’s body and as a senior Officer at the scene confirmed, Liang wished the bullet had ricocheted and hit him instead. The first words spoken by Liang’s mother at the protest were apologies and condolences to the Gurley family before she was unable to utter another word through her sobs. It was one tragedy, two victims, as the protest signs read.
Peter Liang is not a callous individual. He decided to become a police officer to protect people because his mom was robbed. He was sent to the Pink Houses to protect the residents, including Akai Gurley, while innocent at the time he was accidentally shot, was a known drug dealer to the police with 24 prior arrests. I bring this up not to blame the victim but to point out the dangerous elements associated with patrolling of the Pink Houses.
While Liang the rookie police officer is made to shoulder all the blame, one must ask where are his superiors? The same people who put him into this unforgiving situation. The NYPD should take accountability as should the NYCHA for broken lights and unsafe housing and stairwell.
If Liang was a bad person, thousands would not be out there protesting and continuing to support him. He is not a criminal or a threat to society. He is entitled to fair treatment and equal justice under the law. In fact, true justice would be the rightful setting aside of his wrongful conviction, as his lawyers are currently appealing. Liang does not deserve to be incarcerated. Any jail time sentenced would be an atrocity.
In the latest turn of events, and in a small gesture of fairness, Brooklyn DA Thompson has recommended no jail time for Liang. It is now incumbent upon Judge Danny Chun to also rule fairly with no jail time so as not to further compound the injustice befallen upon Peter Liang.
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