Akai Gurley was planning to drive to Jacksonville to see his mother when he was gunned down Nov. 21, 2014, in a darkened public housing unit stairway in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood.
Now the New York City police officer who shot him has been convicted of manslaughter, becoming the first cop convicted in an on-duty death since 2005.
People in the New York City courtroom gasped when the verdict against Officer Peter Liang was announced Thursday after 17 hours of jury deliberations. Liang, who had shed tears while testifying about the 2014 shooting, buried his head in his hands when the verdict was read. The manslaughter charge is a felony and carries up to 15 years in prison, with Liang scheduled for sentencing April 14. Liang was dismissed from the New York Police Department right after the verdict.
Gurley’s mother, Sylvia Palmer, said she was glad about the officer’s conviction outside the courthouse.
“I just want to say thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone,” she said.
Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson said “justice was done” for an “innocent man who was killed by a police officer who violated his training.”
Gurley’s sister, Edward White High School 2013 graduate Akisha Pringle, posted “Rest up my love” on Facebook next to a link to a story about her brother’s death.
But state Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun has yet to rule on Liang’s lawyers’ request to dismiss the charges, which also include a misdemeanor conviction of official misconduct. And Liang’s lawyers said they struggled to understand how the jury could find him guilty for a shooting he said happened accidentally in a pitch-dark stairway.
“If that’s not a time to pull out your gun, I don’t know when is,” defense lawyer Robert Brown said, adding that Liang would appeal.
Liang was a rookie when he and his partner, also new on the force, were patrolling a dark stairway in a public housing high-rise in Brooklyn, police said. Gurley, 28, had just left his girlfriend’s apartment after she had braided his hair for the trip to Jacksonville.
The officers went down the stairs onto an eighth-floor landing, while one floor down Gurley and his girlfriend opened a stairway door. Liang was patrolling with his gun drawn when he heard the noise and fired without a word from about 10 feet away, police said. Liang testified during his trial that he had been holding his weapon safely, with his finger on the side and not the trigger. But he tensed when a sudden sound jarred him.
“I just turned, and the gun went off,” he testified.
Prosecutors said Liang handled his gun recklessly, then did almost nothing to help Gurley.
Liang testified that he did look around with his flashlight, then argued with his partner about who would call their sergeant about the shot. When he went searching for the spent bullet, he found Gurley and radioed for an ambulance. But he testified that he did not help Gurley’s girlfriend in efforts to revive him, saying he thought it was better to wait for paramedics.
“I was panicking. I was shocked and in disbelief that someone was hit,” Liang said.
While Liang’s trial unfolded, two other New York police officers, Patrick Espeut and Diara Cruz, were shot and wounded during a similar stairwell patrol in a different public housing complex. The gunman later killed himself. The judge barred any mention of those shootings in Liang’s trial.
Internal disciplinary proceedings were initiated against Liang’s partner, who was not charged criminally and testified in the case. Liang, who remains free on bail, left the courthouse without comment.
The last New York City officer convicted in a killing in the line of duty was Brian Conroy. He was found guilty in 2005 of criminally negligent homicide in the shooting of Ousmane Zongo, an African immigrant, during a police raid. Conroy was sentenced to probation and 500 hours of community service.
Times-Union writer Dan Scanlan contributed to this report.