Brooklyn Supreme Judge Danny Chun sentenced former NYC Police Officer Peter Liang to 5 years Probation and 800 hours of community service for the shooting death of 28 year old Akai Gurley in a stairwell of the Pink Houses apartment complex. A few weeks ago, Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson shocked many people, especially those in the Brooklyn African-American community, when he wrote the court to set forth his office’s position that Liang should be sentenced to 5 years probation, 6 months house arrest and community service. The court essentially aligned itself with that position but did not give the house arrest instead opting for more community service saying:
“As I watched the video of the defendant entering the lobby of the Pink Houses, I couldn’t help but feel he was entering with the serious mind of protecting the people [there].Shooting somebody never entered his mind. This was not an intentional act. This was an act of criminal negligence.I find incarceration to be unnecessary,” adding “instead of sitting at home, I think he will be much more productive if he spends more time in community service.”
The judge went one step further, dismissing the jury’s verdict of manslaughter thereby reducing the conviction to criminally negligent homicide. For those readers who are not criminal defense lawyers, let me say this – a judge doing dismissing a jury’s finding of guilt is about as rare as a unicorn being ridden by a leprechaun. To do it in a high-profile, racially charged case makes it that much more extraordinary. The outrage from the Gurley family and several community activists was swift and heated. Assemblyman Charles Barron had said that there would likely be violence in the streets if Liang did not get jail.
The issue with the judge’s decision – and the DA’s stance at sentencing – should not be that they were wrong or that the family deserve retribution and payback for what happened to Mr. Gurley. Rather, the outrage and opposition should be that not enough criminal cases are resolved with the introspection and analysis that was afforded Officer Liang. Many agitators will likely point out that the judge, like the defendant is Asian; many more will likely point out that the defendant was a police officer. And while I do not think the first factor played a role, I do believe that the second factor rightly played a role. As the judge noted, Liang was there doing his job; now, he performed it horribly but he was there as a law enforcement officer nevertheless. And his loss of his job, reputation, a now having a criminal record is a runaway train through his life. Yes, his actions caused the death of a an innocent man but the purpose of the criminal justice system should not be retribution, blood-thirst and vengeance. Judge Chun and DA Thompson’s positions properly balanced the various factors of the defendant’s life and actions with the harm caused by his actions.
The shame of this is that this thoughtful and reasoned analysis – particularly AFTER a guilty verdict has been rendered – rarely occurs and would likely not have occurred here if the defendant was anything but a police officer. So the hope is that defense attorneys in the future can use what happened in the Liang case to push for similar treatment of their clients.