P.O. Liang Convicted, And No One Was Saved

Rookie New York City Police Officer Peter Liang was convicted in Brooklyn of Manslaughter 2° for the killing of Akai Gurley in the stairwell of the Pink Houses. Gurley is still dead, not to mention smeared for the audacity of being the body in which the bullet landed.  By its verdict, the jury found that Liang was reckless in causing the death of Gurley.

§ 125.15 Manslaughter in the second degree.
A person is guilty of manslaughter in the second degree when:
1. He recklessly causes the death of another person;

The case didn’t breed the level of outrage that so many other killings of innocent black guys have.  After all, this wasn’t a venal act, an indictment of the police for their hating young black men so much that their lives mean nothing.  This was flagrant incompetence.

The reaction to the verdict has been, well, peculiar.  But then, so too has the quiet surrounding the trial itself.

What gives?

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.

Clearly, not the best day for the NYPD, but not the worst either. Among the default excuses when a cop goes bad is “one bad apple.”  Here, it was one incompetent apple. While it may not be fun for cops to throw any of their brothers under the bus, Liang’s loss was no big deal.  Not only was he a rookie, and a member of a police department that’s bigger than most armies, but his incompetence was personal. He wasn’t a lightning rod for hatred of the cops because of their fear and loathing of the public.

In the scheme of bad stuff done by, and happening to, cops, Liang was no big deal. Akai Gurley was still dead, of course, but tragedies happen.  At least it wouldn’t give rise to calls for anything more than better gun training. They can deal with that.

At ATLRedline, Elie Mystal titles his post, “We Got One: Killer Cop Peter Liang Actually Found Guilty Of Killing A Black Man.”

In a shocking turn of events, a New York City police officer who killed an unarmed black man was actually found guilty of manslaughter and police misconduct.

All true, but so what?  An NYPD cop was reckless with his weapon? That ain’t news. Still, as Elie points out, Liang’s killing of Gurley was by no means a slam dunk conviction.

I say “expected” to get away with it because there was a full freaking two week trial. You would expect that a killer whose only defense was “the gun just went off” would be looking to take a plea of some kind. But in this environment, where cop after black-man-killing-cop has evaded mere prosecution, much less conviction, I suppose Liang thought he had a decent chance of an acquittal. 

And really, I think he might have been acquitted if his behavior after shooting the man to death hadn’t been so despicable.

Not only did Liang have a decent chance of acquittal, but even in a story about the conviction, the New York ignorance of guns precludes a firm grasp of what exactly went wrong.

At one point, Officer Liang opened a door into an unlighted stairwell and his gun went off. The bullet glanced off a wall and hit Akai Gurley, 28, who was walking down the stairs with his girlfriend, and pierced his heart.

His “gun went off”?  Like magic? Did the gun mysteriously discharge a bullet when there was no one around? That was pretty much the defense, that Liang’s hand “tensed” and somehow, who knows how, the trigger was pulled and the gun went off.

That’s not how guns work, of course. And it’s particularly not how the Glocks issued to New York City police officers work, where the trigger pull was increased to 12 pounds to prevent a rash of “accidental” firings by cops who just can’t seem to prevent their guns from just “going off.”

There is a host of reasons why Peter Liang was reckless in his handling of his gun, beginning with the fact that it’s a gun, a tool that can kill someone. He had it unholstered for no reason beyond his generic fear. He had his finger on the trigger despite there being no one to kill. He had it in the same hand with which he turned a door knob. And he pulled the trigger.  It’s a gun. The culpable mental state of recklessness is defined as:

“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.

Pull the trigger of a gun and a bullet comes out. When a bullet comes out, it can hit someone. When it hits someone, it can kill them. That someone can be an intended target or just a black guy who happens to be in a stairwell.

Of course, if it hadn’t been the stairwell of a project, Liang wouldn’t have been so afraid that he felt the need to have his gun drawn. And if it hadn’t been a project, the guy he killed might not have been black.

So yes, Elie is right, we got one.  But Akai Gurley is still dead, New York Police officers still can’t handle their weapons and in the grand scheme of cops killing young black men, this conviction was a throwaway.  We got one. But not the right one. And not one that changes much of anything.

11 thoughts on “P.O. Liang Convicted, And No One Was Saved

  1. REvers

    What kind of sentence do you think he’ll get? I would think a long time in the joint wouldn’t do anybody much good.

    The big thing, to me, is the conviction. He can’t ever be a cop again and more importantly he can’t ever own guns again. This guy should not be around guns.

    1. SHG Post author

      Man 2 is a C felony, which means he’s eligible for probation. I suspect he’ll get a split sentence, only to show lack of favoritism to cops. It’s not because of need, but optics.

  2. Patrick Maupin

    > New York ignorance of guns

    According to recent reporting, the jurors were allowed to hold the gun and pull the trigger, and that was the deciding factor in the verdict — they concluded that Peter was lying about the sequence of events.

    1. SHG Post author

      Wonder what nice CDL gave ’em the idea to put the gun into evidence after Liang’s testimony so that the jury could test a 12 lb. trigger. Don’t you wonder about that too?

      1. Patrick Maupin

        My assumption has always been that some people who report and analyze (instead of whining about) real (instead of manufactured) injustices also work quietly behind the scenes to help out where they can, so I curb my curiosity, and they can reveal what they want when they want.

        The other thing I’m perennially curious about with cases like this, but will obviously never find out — exactly how bad is the truth that it’s better to get dinged by the jurors for not revealing it than to explain what really happened?

    2. Jason Peterson

      It’s good to hear that the implausibility of this being an accidental or negligent discharge is finally being pointed out.

  3. Dragoness Eclectic

    Good–an actual consequence for reckless incompetence by a policeman! I remember my first reaction to hearing about this accident and the police explanation for it was “Why the hell was this man allowed to carry a gun? He didn’t know thing one about basic firearm safety!”

    Disclosure: I was taught to shoot by my father, did well at boot camp’s firearms range, have shot at ranges for years, off and on. Proper firearms safety is a bugaboo of mine–I hate it when supposed professionals handle guns as badly as the fellow recruit who was thrown off the range by the range safety officers for waving the gun muzzle around indiscriminately. You DON’T get careless with firearms, because people DIE when you do.

    p.s. I liked your essay on Fault Lines–you are honest about disliking guns, and intellectually honest about why tampering with the 2nd Amendment is a Bad Idea.

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