Brooklyn NY District Attorney Kenneth Thompson is getting heat for recommending no jail time for convicted rookie Police Officer Peter Liang in the shooting death of Akai Gurley. But this case presented DA Thompson with a difficult position from the outset and I think the way he has handled it took a great deal of courage and displayed an understanding of the balance and purpose of the criminal justice system.
In February of this year, A Brooklyn NY jury convicted NYC Police Officer Peter Liang of reckless manslaughter for the shooting death of Akai Gurley. Mr. Gurley, a young black man and father of a two year old child, was taking the dimly lit stairway in the Pink Houses Housing Project because its elevators were once again out of order. Rookie cop Liang was doing a vertical patrol of the stairway with his gun drawn, which is NYPD protocol;he did testify however that he had his finger on the trigger,which is against the training and protocol he learned at the Police Academy. He also testified at his trial that as he was trying to open a stairway door, he heard a noise to his left that startled him and his gun accidentally went off. The bullet ricocheted off a wall and hit Mr. Gurley, subsequently causing his death. Without a doubt, the incident was a tragedy, needlessly taking Mr. Gurley’s life at too young an age. I wrote a blog post here that in many instances such a matter would not make it to criminal court and would be treated as a civil matter. But DA Thompson brought the case, had it indicted, and obtained a conviction. Kimberly Ballinger, the mother of Gurley’s daughter and Sylvia Palmer, Mr. Gurley’s mother had high praise for the DA at the time of the conviction. Ms. Ballinger said “I want to Thank God. The DA is a man of his word.” Ms. Palmer said “I want to thank the District Attorney’s Office. The entire staff did a very good job of presenting the evidence.” Predictably, Patrick Lynch, head of the NYC PBA, the police officer’s union, was indignant that charges had even been bought in the first place.
But the City and nation were still reeling from numerous instances of young men of color shot or otherwise killed by police officers who then faced no prosecution or punishment. In advance of Liang’s April 14 sentencing, DA Thompson sent a letter to Judge Chun who will be presiding. In it he recommended that Liang serve no jail time; do six months of house arrest; be placed on five years probation; and perform 500 hours of community service. He acknowledged the rookie status of Liang and the great unlikelihood that he will ever become involved in crime again. He then stated:
“There is no evidence . . . that [Liang] intended to kill or injure Akai Gurley. When Mr. Liang went into that building that night he did so as part of his job and to keep the people of Brooklyn and our city safe. In sentencing a defendant, the facts of the crime and the particular characteristics of that person must be considered. . . As I have said before, there are no winners here. But the sentence I have requested is just and fair under the circumstances. From the beginning, this tragic case has always been about justice and not revenge.”
Mr. Gurley’s relatives were outraged, particularly since the DA did not talk to them prior to issuing his recommendation. Ms. Palmer called the decision”a modern day lynching.”But Mr. Gurley’s civil lawyer, Scott Rynecki, reminded the press that Thompson’s office “accomplished what many others have not. They were able to obtain the indictment and conviction of a police officer for the wrongful shooting and death of an innocent man.” Even Liang’s lawyers praised the DA’s Office calling the recommendation “exceptional” and adding that the decision was “dispassionate and courageous.”
And it was. What others might miss however is that perhaps, this case will also present a tone and manner of thought that is applied to all cases. The principal icon of our justice system is the Scales. Justice means balancing the different factors that are inherent in all criminal cases: the nature of the crime; the character and background of the defendant; the need to protect society; and the need to ensure that punishment is not meted out solely to appease the thirst for blood but to meet societal goals that include re-integrating the accused into society. It would be a great day indeed if District Attorneys across the country took Ken Thompson’s holistic approach here and viewed the entire big picture before deciding on the easy answer of “lock him up and throw away the key.”
You can read DA Thompson’s full statement HERE
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