Akai Gurley case: NYPD officer charged with manslaughter, other counts

Story highlights

  • Akai Gurley was taking the unlit stairs at a housing complex when he shot in the chest
  • Prosecutors charged the officer involved with second-degree manslaughter, other counts
  • District attorney says he believes shooting not intentional, but innocent man was killed

Brooklyn, New York (CNN)A New York police officer was charged Wednesday with second-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of an unarmed Brooklyn man in November.

Officer Peter Liang was arraigned Wednesday in Brooklyn Supreme Court for "recklessly" causing the death of Akai Gurley, according to court documents.
In addition to the manslaughter charge, Liang faces one count of criminally negligent homicide, one count of second-degree assault, one count of reckless endangerment and two counts of official misconduct. He was released without bail.
    If Liang were convicted on the charge of second-degree manslaughter, he could face up to 15 years in prison.
    "The defendant ignored his training" when he used his firearm, lead prosecutor Marc Fliedner told the court. The defendant also did not try to help Gurley, instead retreating to a hallway and telling a fellow officer "I'm going to get fired," Fliedner said.
    The prosecution will prove Liang made a "deliberate motion" with his firearm, he added.
    CNN tried to get a comment after court from defense attorney Stephen Worth but was unsuccessful.
    Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson thanked Fliedner and others "who worked so hard on this case so that the judicial process could be conducted fairly."
    Thompson also thanked NYPD officers for their assistance. It was important to "recognize the courage and valor" that many officers showed when they responded to the scene, he said. Several officers tried to stop Gurley's bleeding.
    Prosecutors don't believe Liang intentionally killed Gurley, the DA said, but he had his finger on the trigger and an innocent man was killed.

    Liang new to the NYPD

    Gurley, 28, was "a total innocent who just happened" to run into Liang in a "pitch black" stairwell at the Louis H. Pink Houses in Brooklyn, New York Police Commissioner William Bratton told reporters the day after the killing.
    At the time, the NYPD said the fatal shot was an "accidental discharge."
    Liang, with less than 18 months on the job and on probationary status, had been placed on modified assignment and stripped of his gun and badge pending an investigation.
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    "This officer deserves the same due process afforded to anyone involved in the accidental death of another," Patrick Lynch, head of the police union, said in a Tuesday statement. "The fact that he was assigned to patrol one of the most dangerous housing projects in New York City must be considered among the circumstances of this tragic accident."
    Liang and his partner were part of a "violence reduction overtime detail" at the Pink Houses, where a spate of serious crimes have been reported in recent months, including two robberies and four assaults, Bratton told reporters after the shooting.

    Gurley, girlfriend in unlit stairwell

    The officers had taken an elevator to the building's top floor to check on the roof and were taking the stairs down from the 8th floor, Bratton said, when the officer fired his weapon. There were no lights in the stairwell leading up to the roof.
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    Liang drew a flashlight and his weapon "for safety reasons," the police commissioner said. The other officer did not draw his gun.
    In the darkened stairwell, Liang's gun discharged about the same time that Gurley, the father of a 2-year-old child, and his girlfriend were entering the seventh-floor landing, Bratton said. Shot once in the chest, Gurley died at a hospital.
    The lights on the seventh and eighth floors were not working, Bratton said.
    The police commissioner said the decision on when to draw a weapon is the discretion of officers "based on what they are encountering or believe they may encounter. So there is not a specific prohibition against taking a firearm out. But again, as in all cases, an officer would have to justify the circumstances that required him to or resulted in unholstering his firearm."
    The shooting also is being investigated by police internal affairs.
    Gurley's shooting occurred at a time of strained police-community relations after the July death of Eric Garner at the hands of police on Staten Island. The chokehold death of the unarmed 43-year-old man sparked street protests, a review of police procedures and calls for a federal civil rights investigation. A grand jury declined to prosecute the officer.
    A few weeks after Garner's death, the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, of unarmed teenager Michael Brown thrust into the forefront the issue of law enforcement's use of deadly force. A grand jury declined to prosecute Officer Darren Wilson, a decision that led to national demonstrations.