The trial of New York City Police Officer Peter Liang is beginning. Who, you ask? Liang, the cop who killed Akai Gurley. There was no question that Gurley did nothing, absolutely nothing, to justify dying at the end of a cop’s bullet, yet there are no protests, no cries of “no justice, no peace,” for his death. And the cops don’t give a damn about what happens to one of their own either.
In the scheme of things to get outraged about, this just doesn’t make it onto the radar. There is no venal intent, so no one seems capable of getting too worked up about a black kid’s death. This time.
Liang is not accused of intentionally shooting Gurley, who was walking in the unlit stairwell with his girlfriend. The bullet ricocheted off the wall and struck Gurley in the chest.
Prosecutors have said Liang acted recklessly by drawing his weapon in the first place. They have also said he and his partner argued for minutes about whether to report the shot for fear of discipline, though prosecutors have not released evidence suggesting the two officers immediately realized someone had been wounded.
People knowledgeable about the use and handling of firearms are quick to point out that there is no such thing as an accidental shooting. That assumes proper training and proper handling, which may be an assumption too far in the case of a police officer.
The rule is don’t put your finger on a trigger unless you intend to pull it, and if there is no finger on a trigger, there is no chance of discharge. It wouldn’t seem too difficult to let cops in on this one weird trick that prevents killing someone who doesn’t need to die.
There was more to what happened here than Liang’s merely unholstering his gun. He had a finger on the trigger guard, where it slipped and caused a bullet to discharge. He had the gun in his hand as he turned a door knob. He was, at the absolute minimum, insufferably careless.
But was he reckless?
3. “Recklessly.” A person acts recklessly with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.
The critical feature of the criminal mens rea of recklessness is that the defendant be “aware of and consciously disregard a substantial and unjustifiable risk.” It distinguishes negligence, failing to exercise that quantum of care that is expected of a reasonable person,” from a crime. Was the risk of mistaken discharge “substantial”? Did Liang realize his incompetent handling of his weapon created such a risk, and then consciously disregard it?
Or, as his lawyers contend, was this just a tragic accident?
Liang, who is Chinese-American, has hired two former NYPD officers as his defense lawyers: Rae Koshetz, a former deputy commissioner who oversaw internal disciplinary trials for NYPD members for 14 years, and Robert Brown, a former captain.
Brown said Liang had committed no crime.
“It was just a terrible tragedy,” he said.
Well, obviously it was a terrible tragedy because an innocent man died, but that’s not a defense to a criminal charge.
At Fault Lines, Ken Womble sees the defense of Liang as a fairly easy sell, that the prosecution lacks the goods to turn this from an accident, simple negligence, to a crime.
The trial itself should be fascinating in that the jury will not be asked to pour over hours of surveillance video or weigh the merits of two completely different narratives. They will be asked to think, and think very hard.
So it would seem as though the prosecution, if they are to have any hope of conviction, will have to focus all of their efforts on the first question. Was it reckless for Liang to draw his gun under the circumstances? Was it reckless for him to have his finger on the trigger while he opened the door to the stairwell?
This is the prosecution’s best bet, but only because they have no other bets. It will be quite difficult to convince a jury that it was legally unreasonable, beyond a reasonable doubt, for Liang to have taken his gun out and handled it as he did.
But as Ken goes on to note, there is a problem that won’t be on trial, though it’s far more important than whether one cop was careless or reckless in handling his weapon.
Put aside all the other things that have latched onto this case. Liang was sent into those projects because they are dangerous. Getting spooked and pulling out one’s firearm while patrolling the Pink Houses might be an indication that Liang does not have what it takes to be a cop. But that is a far cry from convincing twelve jurors that he is guilty of homicide beyond a reasonable doubt.
Prosecuting Liang for manslaughter won’t bring Akai Gurley back to life. It won’t be a data point in condemning the NYPD for having a murderous attitude toward young black men. While it might bring some comfort to Gurley’s family and loved ones, so too would a decent admission of wrongdoing with a check from the Comptroller’s office.
But what won’t be addressed at trial, and what does matter, is that the banal fear, the “spooked” of which Womble speaks, gives rise to a plethora of problems, all of which end up working out badly for people like Akai Gurley. Introduce guys with guns, with dubious training, questionable psychological profiles, a culture of fearing and having little care for minorities, and stir. People end up dead, maimed or imprisoned.
As with the trial of Peter Liang, nobody cares all that much about banal harm. It’s just a fact of life. Sometimes, guns go off accidentally. Stercus accidit. But the harm of ordinary injustice, mundane incompetence, isn’t outrageous enough to capture our interest. Even though it ended Akai Gurley’s life.