NEW YORK >> Jurors will return to court as they consider whether a rookie police officer who shot an innocent man in a dark public housing stairwell accidentally discharged his weapon, as he says, or whether he acted out of recklessness and did little to help the dying victim, as the prosecution contends.
New York Police Department Officer Peter Liang faces up to 15 years in prison if he’s convicted on manslaughter and other charges in the death of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, who was taking the stairs down with his girlfriend rather than wait for an elevator at the Brooklyn complex.
Liang, 28, testified this week that he didn’t know anyone was in the pitch-black stairway on Nov. 20, 2014, when he unintentionally fired his drawn gun while on patrol after being startled by a noise. The shot ricocheted off a wall and hit Gurley, who was unarmed.
The 12-member panel deliberated for about an hour Tuesday before being sent home for the day. District Attorney Kenneth Thompson sat beside Gurley’s domestic partner, Kimberly Ballenger, as the jury heard closing arguments Tuesday afternoon.
Prosecutors presented a very different version of Liang’s state of mind after the shooting than Liang’s lawyer.
Defense attorney Robert Brown said his client was “very distraught” and radioed for help as soon as he knew someone had been shot. But prosecutors argued Liang was only concerned about losing his job and suggested that his initial attempt to find the shell casing from his gun was an attempt at a cover-up.
“This finger along the side of the gun … will not slip off and find its way to the trigger,” Assistant District Attorney Joe Alexis said as held up Liang’s gun in court. “This was no accident.”
Brown cautioned jurors not to let emotions play any role in their deliberations.
“What happened here is a tragedy,” he said. “It’s a terrible tragedy. But it’s not a crime.”
Jurors are considering five criminal charges against Liang, which also include criminally negligent homicide, assault, reckless endangerment and official misconduct counts. Before beginning their deliberations, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun dismissed one of the two misdemeanor official misconduct charges. After starting deliberations, the jurors asked for an array of materials, including a copy of the NYPD’s patrol guide.
Liang testified Monday that after firing the shot, he beamed his flashlight into the stairwell and initially saw no one. Liang acknowledged that he didn’t immediately report the shot. Fearing for his job, he bickered with his partner about which one would phone their sergeant.
Then he went looking for the bullet and heard someone crying. He followed the sound down three flights and saw Gurley lying wounded.
Prosecutors say that Liang did not try to help Gurley, even as his girlfriend, Melissa Butler, tried to resuscitate him. Liang said he thought it would be better to wait for professional aid.
The shooting came in a year of protests and nationwide debate about police use of force, especially after grand juries declined to indict white police officers in the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri. Both Garner and Brown were black and unarmed.
Gurley, too, was black. Liang is Chinese-American.
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz and Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.