NEW YORK–Asian American community leaders expressed surprise today when the judge who presided over the jury trial in which former police officer Peter Liang was found guilty of manslaughter in February reduced Liang’s conviction to the lowest possible level and sentenced him to no jail time.
Yet, both sides vowed to appeal the unexpected outcome in this high profile and racially charged case that concluded Tuesday afternoon in a packed and exceptionally heavily policed New York courthouse, surrounded by rival groups of demonstrators.
Justice Danny K. Chun also discounted the controversial sentencing guideline for manslaughter that had been given by the Brooklyn District Attorney — six months of house arrest but no jail.
For manslaughter, Justice Chun said, “The standard is clear,” knowingly taking “substantial, unjustified risk.” In Liang’s case, “There’s no evidence the defendant was aware of Akai Gurley’s presence and still disregarded the risk.”
The judge reduced Liang’s sentence to community service alone—800 hours or “about five months,” he said. (The DA had recommended 500 hours service plus six months’ house arrest.)
Several supporters of Akai Gurley, the man killed by a bullet ricocheting from Liang’s gun in a dark stairwell, had to be restrained as they looked to burst from Brooklyn Supreme Court upon hearing Justice Chun’s decision.
The judge found the ex-NYPD officer guilty of official misconduct, related to failure to administer first aid to Gurley, as well as criminally negligent homicide.
A representative for the DA’s office said it would appeal to have the manslaughter conviction reinstated, “We believe the jury was correct.”
Early in the sentencing he said the DA’s office considered this a “very, very unique” case.
The latest in the unusual elements of the case were two afternoons of representations to the judge last week that delayed the scheduled sentencing. The defense asked that Liang’s trial be thrown out because it emerged that a juror had not disclosed during jury selection that his father had been convicted of manslaughter in a case involving an accidental shooting.
Justice Chun opened his sentencing by saying he had considered the submissions “to set aside the jury verdict”.
A week after Liang was convicted of manslaughter, there was a huge backlash to perceived scapegoating of Asian Americans across the US.
Supporters want Liang exonerated
New York saw one of the greatest shows of Asian force ever as more than 10,000 people protested outside the courthouse.
John Chan, organizer of that rally, told The Asia Times he was pleasantly surprised by the judge’s decision, especially since he had denied last week’s case for a mistrial.
However, the fact that the judge did not grant a retrial means he cannot be trusted to be fair, Chan, general director of The Coalition of Asian-Americans for Civil Rights, said through an interpreter. Consequently, he plans to appeal for Liang to be exonerated.
The kind of commotion at Liang’s sentencing is seen only every few years, a court officer who did not give his name said. The visitors’ galley was closed ahead of the hearing and two overflow rooms filled to capacity — about 350 people, including some 50 journalists.
Outside, afterwards, Yungman Lee, a lawyer and democratic political candidate, who had spoken at the New York rally, praised the judge’s decision.
Going into the courthouse, Lee, who was 20 years with Shearman & Sterling, a prestigious New York firm, he said he expected the judge to follow the DA’s sentencing guideline as most judges do.
He had little hope that the judge would respond to the eleventh-hour request for Liang’s conviction to be dropped, he added. “It’s very, very rare, highly unlikely a judge would throw out a jury verdict.”
Karlin Chan, executive director of the Chinese Action Network, said, “This decision has a huge impact.”
Asked if political pressure factored into Justice Chun’s decision, Chan did not respond directly. “He proved his point to hold Peter Liang accountable … but he also saw through the special circumstances.”
One of Liang’s supporters said last week that the hearings called to discuss the new evidence of an allegedly lying juror provided the Korean-born judge with “a chance to save face with the Asian American community.” The supporter did not wish to be named.
Case had racial overtones
Liang’s case has many racial overtones. His trial for the November 2014 shooting of Gurley, an African American, came during a time of heightened tension between the police and African Americans. Black-lives-matter protests have been sweeping the US in response to a spate of fatal police shootings of unarmed black men.
The court representative for the African-American DA, Ken Thompson repeatedly said Gurley “mattered” in his submission and dismissed calls for riots should Liang not serve time.
At the rallies for Liang, many suggested he was the police sacrifice in an era of “anti-police sentiment”.
Among them John Liu, former NYC Comptroller and the son of Taiwanese immigrants, said Liang had “not a Chinaman’s chance.” Just as African Americans don’t want to be targeted, neither do Asian Americans, he said. Liu could not be reached at press time for comment.
Outside the court, Rahel Teka, read a statement from the Gurley family: “Shame on DA Thompson, shame on Justice Chun, shame on NYC.”
By then, most of the 150 Liang supporters, who held placards on one barricaded side of the street, had left. The 60 or so Gurley supporters remained, intermittently chanting.
Among them were some Asian Americans, including Aya Yamamoto, a translator from Japan who now lives near the courthouse. “I know Peter Liang didn’t plan it but I feel a foundation of racism enabled the act,” she said. Police tend to expect the worst in high-crime neighborhoods, she said, adding, “I’ve lived in areas where there is police brutality and I don’t feel comfortable calling the police.”
Justice Chun said during sentencing that if the appellate court overrules him and “I’m told to restore the manslaughter in the second degree I will have to reconsider my decision and whether incarceration is necessary.”
Orla O’Sullivan is a New York-based journalist whose work has been widely published in business journals and consumer titles on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Irish Independent and The New York Times.