Officer Peter Liang is charged with manslaughter
Prosecutors accuse him of recklessly firing the shot that killed Akai Gurley
The rookie officer's attorney says his gun accidentally discharged
Peter Liang, the police officer who shot Akai Gurley in the stairwell of a New York housing project, was more concerned about saving his own job than saving the man’s life, a prosecutor argued.
Speaking in his opening statement in the manslaughter trial of Liang, the prosecutor accused the rookie New York Police officer of recklessly shooting into a dark stairwell “for no reason” that night in November 2014.
“Then, instead of doing all that he could to help Akai Gurley, he wasted precious time arguing with his partner about calling for help,” Assistant District Attorney Marc Fliedner told jurors. “In fact, instead of calling for help, he just stood there and whined and moaned about how he would get fired.”
Gurley was shot in the chest and later died at the hospital. The next day, New York Police Commissioner William Bratton told reporters the 28-year-old was “a total innocent” who fell victim to “a very unfortunate tragedy … involving an accidental discharge.”
As they made their case Monday, prosecutors played a 911 recording of neighbor Melissa Lopez shouting CPR guidelines to Gurley’s girlfriend as he lay bleeding on the ground. In the recording, Lopez tells the dispatcher she sees numerous police officers, but no paramedics, at the scene.
“Let me ask you something, are the cops assisting her?” the EMS dispatcher asks her.
“They’re right here. They’re not with her. They’re trying to, I guess, call back up? I don’t know,” the caller replies.
“Alright, does she have anybody else there with her?” the dispatcher asks.
“No,” the caller responds, “She’s alone with him. She’s still doing CPR on him right now.”
Liang’s attorney told the jury Monday that Liang’s gun accidentally discharged when he had it out while on patrol in the dangerous building. He was in shock, she said, and didn’t know Gurley had been shot.
“He’s shaken and terrified and totally, and I mean totally, unaware that a bullet has struck anything. At that point, sure, he’s upset about losing his job, (but) he has no idea that anything else had happened,” defense attorney Rae Koshetz said.
When Liang and his partner went back into the stairwell to investigate, they discovered Gurley and his girlfriend on a stair landing below, Koshetz said.
“The evidence in this case will show that this was a million to one possibility. The bullet had traveled downward, hit the cinderblock wall on the side of the stairs and then ricocheted and hit Mr. Gurley a floor below and completely out of sight. And it hits him on his left side,” she said. “It is a fatal wound and you will hear that no amount of CPR would have saved his life.”
The 2014 shooting death came amid strained relations between police and the community, just a few months after the death of Eric Garner in police custody in Staten Island. The chokehold death of Garner, an 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.
Liang was indicted last February. If he’s convicted of second-degree manslaughter, he could face up to 15 years in prison. At the time of his indictment, the head of the police union said he deserved due process.
“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,” union chief Patrick Lynch said.
Liang’s attorney cautioned jurors against making the case part of a larger debate.
“The New York Police Department is not on trial here, nor are any other police departments in the country,” she said. “This is not a referendum of policing in the United States in which you cast a vote or send a message about policing in general, nor is this case about retribution or getting even.”
But the assistant district attorney said the officer should be held accountable for his actions.
“A life slipped away,” Fliedner said, “because Peter Liang recklessly pumped a shot into the dark stairwell that ripped through Akai Gurley’s heart and killed him.”
CNN’s Laura Ly reported from New York. CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet wrote the story in Atlanta. CNN’s Steve Almasy, Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley and Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.