What New York cop's conviction means for Black Lives Matter

New York police officer Peter Liang was convicted of manslaughter and official misconduct in the death of Akai Gurley in a darkened public housing stairwell.

Mary Altaffer/Reuters
New York City Police officer Peter Liang reacts as the verdict is read during his trial in court room at the King's County Supreme Court in the Brooklyn borough of New York on Thursday. Mr. Liang was convicted of manslaughter and official misconduct on Thursday for fatally shooting an unarmed black man, Akai Gurley, in a darkened public housing stairwell in 2014.

A mostly white jury convicted New York police officer Peter Liang of manslaughter on Thursday for the 2014 fatal shooting of a black man in a darkened stairway.

The victim, Akai Gurley, was unarmed when he was killed by a ricocheting bullet in the stairwell of a public housing unit. Mr. Liang claims the shooting was an accident.

The ruling comes at a time when a series of high profile police killings in the United States, have spurred tense protests, fueled a new civil rights movement, and prompted international criticism. Liang's conviction is a victory for the Gurley family and the greater Black Lives Movement, but the prosecution urged the public to remember that each case must be tried separately on its own merits. 

"This officer was indicted not because of what is happening elsewhere in the country but because of what happened in that stairwell," Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson told the Associated Press. "This conviction is not a conviction of the entire NYPD.” 

Although this case is in some ways similar to incidents in Ferguson, Mo., Liang was not accused of killing Mr. Gurley on purpose.

Liang was a new officer in November, 2014, when he entered a dark stairwell in a Brooklyn housing project. A noise in the darkness startled him, he says, and his finger slipped on the trigger of his gun.

Gurley was in the stairwell one floor below. Liang told jurors that he was distraught when he realized that his accidental shot had hit someone.

"Oh my God, someone's hit," he recalled saying.

It was what happened after that moment that prosecutors asked jurors to point their attention.

As Gurley’s girlfriend, Kimberley Ballinger, attempted to aid him, Liang reportedly stood by, shocked. That failure to offer help to a dying man was the basis for the jury's finding that he was guilty of official misconduct.

Although Mr. Thompson has stated that the conviction is not a condemnation of the entire NYPD, he believes that the court’s decision shows that Gurley’s life mattered. "It was a tragedy, but justice was done," said Thompson.

It wasn't until the closing arguments that prosecutors suggested that Liang, a Chinese-American, must have assumed that the noise that startled him came from another person and that he fired a shot on purpose.

Liang could receive up to 15 years in prison when he is sentenced in April.

As Liang’s family and friends expressed satisfaction with the case’s outcome, activists celebrated on social media. Protesters against police violence will demonstrate outside NYPD headquarters on Friday.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a statement, saying that he hoped the verdict will help Gurley’s family find closure.

Some say, however, that the conviction will hamper the ability of police officers to do their work.

"It says to the NYPD, you have to be very cautious about taking your gun out,” said Liang’s defense lawyer Robert Brown, “to the point of risking your own life."

The president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, New York’s largest police union, also expressed concern about the implications of the case. The verdict, says Patrick Lynch, "will have a chilling effect on police officers across the city because it criminalizes a tragic accident."

Two officers were shot earlier this month in a similar staircase to the one where Gurley was killed. Liang’s lawyers told the jury that so-called vertical patrols are dangerous for officers, justifying Liang’s fears.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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