Murdering Akai a second time

March 29, 2016

After a recommendation that Officer Peter Liang not receive prison time for killing Akai Gurley, family and friends gathered to mourn and fight on. Allen Arthur reports.

"AKAI GURLEY was murdered again by Ken Thompson. The bullet that Peter Liang fired on November 20, 2014, has struck him again on March 23, 2016."

Those were the first words spoken by Hertencia Petersen, Akai Gurley's aunt, on March 24 in Brooklyn. Petersen was speaking at a press conference called by Gurley's family and activists in response to Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson's recommendation the day before to Judge Danny Chun that NYPD Officer Peter Liang receive no jail time for the killing of Akai Gurley.

On November 20, 2014, Officers Peter Liang and Shaun Landau were in East New York's Louis H. Pink Houses conducting a "vertical patrol," a controversial technique where police warrantlessly walk the stairwells of public housing facilities, looking for "criminal activity." When Liang came upon Akai Gurley and his girlfriend Melissa Butler in a dark stairwell, he fired his weapon. The bullet ricocheted and hit Gurley. Butler attempted to provide CPR. Liang did not.

Evidence pointed to failings by Liang at virtually every stage of the encounter. First, Liang and Landau had been ordered not to do vertical patrols in the Pink Houses. Second, Liang had his gun out with his finger on the trigger during the patrol, despite no apparent threat to his safety. Gurley was unarmed and not the subject of any search or inquiry.

Family and supporters rally for justice for Akai Gurley
Family and supporters rally for justice for Akai Gurley (Peter Eliscu)

Third, instead of providing CPR, Liang texted his union representative for advice and failed to call in the shooting for over six minutes. When he did, it was as an "accidental discharge" that contained no mention of Gurley's state. Testimony by Officer Landau during the trial revealed that he didn't know how to provide CPR because another officer helped him cheat on the department's exam.

In part due to intense pressure from media and activists, and in part due to the strength of the evidence and egregiousness of the shooting, Liang was indicted. This is a rarity for police in the U.S. and even more in New York City: Liang was the first NYPD officer convicted for a shooting in over a decade.

Liang's sentencing is scheduled for April 14, but Brooklyn DA Thompson made a shocking recommendation on March 23: six months of house arrest, five years of probation, and 500 hours of community service for Liang. Not a single day to be spent in jail.

In his statement, Thompson said, "Mr. Liang has no prior criminal history and poses no future threat to public safety. Because his incarceration is not necessary to protect the public, and due to the unique circumstances of this case, a prison sentence is not warranted." This recommendation has even caused members of the jury who convicted Liang to wonder what the trial was for.

FLANKED BY City Council members Charles and Inez Barron, a silent and distraught Butler, dozens of activists, and parents of victims of police brutality like Nicholas Heyward Sr. and Frank Graham, Petersen spoke fiercely about the pain, disappointment and betrayal felt in the wake of the recommendation.

"You are just as guilty as if you pulled the trigger," she continued. "What explanation can you give, Ken Thompson, to a grieving mother as to why you are recommending no jail time for the man that murdered her son?"

Councilman Charles Barron was no less emphatic, explaining that decisions such as Thompson's only stoke the fires of anger and protest:

I run for office and tell my people to vote. I march out here in the streets and say, "Shut it down." I protest. I do civil disobedience. We've done everything peaceful to try to get justice. Don't make us bring Ferguson to New York City. It seems as though the only thing this country understands is when we tear it down.

Am I saying that we should be violent? Am I saying that we should do something that we haven't done? I'm saying that the system will determine that.

Speakers and allies in attendance wondered aloud about a significant question: If there was enough evidence of manslaughter not only to indict Liang under Ken Thompson's watch, but also for a jury to convict him for it, how could it now be possible that Liang doesn't merit time in prison?

Nicholas Heyward Sr. has been fighting for justice for his son, Nicholas Heyward Jr., for over 20 years. Brooklyn police killed Heyward Jr. in 1994 in the stairwell of the Gowanus houses as he played "cops and robbers" with his friends. Police allegedly mistook his toy gun for a real one and shot him in the stomach, killing him. He was 13.

Previous Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes declared this a "tragic accident" but Heyward Sr. "always believed that Charles Hynes never investigated this case." Heyward says he "really felt that Ken Thompson was going to be the man who's going to bring change to the criminal justice system in Brooklyn."

"I never really had too much faith in this justice system at all," said Heyward. "And it was Ken Thompson, when he came into office, that I actually started to think, 'Maybe we might get some justice under his watch.' But this decision, this recommendation is making me lose all hope and trust in the system all over again."

Petersen spoke to a small group of reporters after the event, expressing disbelief that the very behaviors Liang was convicted for are also the factors that excuse him from jail time.

"If Akai Gurley had shot Peter Liang, had the roles been reversed, Akai Gurley would have been in prison from the very first day," she said. "We're not saying that he had any intentions of going in there and murdering Akai. No, it's the manner of things that he did afterward, trying to cover up what's been mentioned now."

This sentiment was echoed numerous times: the feeling that regardless of how far the legal process went or who was overseeing it, someone would swoop in to save an officer from any significant punishment, a luxury not afforded to other accused criminals. As Butler's attorney Roger Wareham said:

Cops always knew that you can do anything in a Black and Latino community because you're not going to be held accountable. So even if they say in this one instance he was held accountable, he didn't go to jail...

Anybody else convicted of this crime, anybody else who went to trial and lost would be going to jail. So the signal that's being sent out to the cops is: This isn't really unique. Every once in a while there's so much public pressure that we have to go through the steps of at least having a trial and even securing a conviction.

IT IS worth mentioning a scene that occurred after the event. A police officer asked not to be recorded by attendees, despite the presence of dozens of news cameras in the area. The attendees rebuffed him quickly, saying they were at a public event on public property and could film as they wanted. They also admonished the officer, himself a Black man, for harassing Black protesters there to support Black life.

A young man, no older than a teenager, walked by, dressed in a red hoodie and backpack. He asked something to the effect of: "Why do you always have to make it about race?"

There was little evidence that the young man knew the nature of the event that had concluded a few minutes before, but the baggage of such a question and the rage of the event collided. Numerous attendees became heated, asking, "What sort of question is that?" or "Who do you think you are?" Some desperately tried to inform him of the mistake he was making.

It was Frank Graham, Ramarley's father, who took the young man by the arm. Graham explained to the young man, gently but with no room for misunderstanding, why everyone had gathered, and what it is like to experience the pain of losing a child to police and being unable to secure justice.

"We're here because Black life has been stolen," Graham told the young man.

I asked Graham afterward what it's like, as the father of someone killed by police, to hear questions like that.

"I don't mind enlightening people," he said stoically, "educating them with the facts."

The young man got an impromptu lesson, and toward the end, he was asked about his own ethnicity. He said he was Algerian. It was not lost on the people gathered that the Algerians themselves were a colonized people who had to protest, fight and die for their liberation from France. It was a connection from the national colonization of decades past to the neighborhood colonization communities experience today. And those most affected--the parents, families, and allies--were there to educate.

Further Reading

From the archives