NEW YORK – A rookie police officer who shot an unarmed man dead in a darkened public housing stairwell was convicted Thursday of manslaughter in a case closely watched by advocates for police accountability.
The courtroom audience gasped and Officer Peter Liang, who had broken into tears as he testified about the 2014 shooting of Akai Gurley, buried his head in his hands as the verdict came after 17 hours of jury deliberations.
The manslaughter charge carries up to 15 years in prison. Liang's sentencing is set for April 14.
The shooting happened in a year of debate nationwide about police killings of black men, and activists have looked to Liang's trial as a counterweight to cases in which grand juries have declined to indict officers, including the cases of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York. Like Gurley, Brown and Garner were black and unarmed.
Meanwhile, supporters of Liang, who is Chinese-American, have said he has been made a scapegoat for past injustices.
Liang was patrolling in the public housing in Brooklyn with his gun drawn when he fired; he said a sound startled him. The bullet ricocheted off a wall and hit the 28-year-old Gurley on a lower floor.
Prosecutors said Liang handled his gun recklessly, must have realized from the noise that someone was nearby and did almost nothing to help Gurley.
"Instead of shining a light, he pointed his gun and shot Akai Gurley," Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Joe Alexis said in his closing argument.
But the defense said the shooting was an accident, not a crime.
The 28-year-old Liang said he had been holding his weapon safely, with his finger on the side and not the trigger, when the sudden sound jarred him and his body tensed.
"I just turned, and the gun went off," he testified.
He said he initially looked with his flashlight, saw no one and didn't immediately report the shot, instead quarreling with his partner about who would call their sergeant. Liang thought he might get fired.
But then, he said, he went to look for the bullet, heard cries and found the wounded Gurley, with his weeping girlfriend trying to tend to him.
Liang then radioed for an ambulance, but he acknowledged not helping Gurley's girlfriend try to revive him. Liang explained he thought it was wiser to wait for professional medical aid.
"I was panicking. I was shocked and in disbelief that someone was hit," said Liang, who said he was so overcome that he needed oxygen as he was taken to a hospital for ringing in his ears.
While Liang's trial unfolded, two other New York police officers, Patrick Espeut and Diara Cruz, were shot and wounded during a similar stairwell patrol in a different public housing complex. The gunman later killed himself. The judge barred any mention of those shootings in Liang's trial.