March 9, 2016

The Limits of the Liang Conviction

Jonathan H. Oberman
Kendea Johnson

March 9, 2016 New York Law Journal - Akai Gurley's death in the darkened stairwell of Building A of the Louis A. Pink Houses on Nov. 20, 2014, was in every way a tragedy. It was also a crime.

And on Feb. 11, 2016, after deliberating for more than two days, a jury found Police Officer Peter Liang guilty of second degree manslaughter for recklessly causing his death. Members of Gurley's family cried with a deep sense of relief. They offered words of thanks. Their faith in justice had, at least by some measure, been restored.

Seconds before firing a single shot, Liang, a recent graduate of the Police Academy, accompanied by fellow rookie Shaun Landau, had stepped into the darkened eighth floor landing stairwell. As on many other days, the elevators were not working properly. A repair request made months before the shooting to upgrade the aging lighting system remained unaddressed by the New York City Housing Authority. Lights on the eighth floor stairwell landing were broken and had not been replaced.

Liang, with gun in hand, pushed open the door, and stepped onto the landing. A sound may have startled him and he fired a single shot down the darkened stairwell. The bullet ricocheted off the wall and one floor below hit Gurley, who stumbled from the seventh to the fifth floor where he collapsed and died. Neither Liang nor his partner immediately radioed 911 to ask for medical help or to report the shooting. Neither officer administered CPR to Gurley.

The jury verdict speaks for itself—finding Liang's conduct reckless, and that it directly caused Gurley's death.

When Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson successfully secured an indictment against Liang, many people hoped that justice would finally be achieved. And the verdict does impose a measure of accountability on police conduct that all too often has escaped legal scrutiny or judgment. Liang became the first NYPD officer convicted in a line-of-duty shooting in over a decade.

But we should resist efforts to portray the verdict as a symbolic conviction for past failed grand jury presentations, trials, and investigations into the shooting deaths of unarmed black men all over the country. Nor should we ignore the critical and nuanced questions the verdict raises: Why is the only successfully prosecuted officer Asian-American? How does Liang's conviction figure in what the writer Jay Caspian Kang called the "sludgy arena" of identity and race politics?

Read more in the New York Law Journal.