A Brooklyn prosecutor on Wednesday asked that no jail time be given to former rookie cop Peter Liang, whose manslaughter conviction for shooting an unarmed black man was met with mass protests by Chinese Americans around the nation last month.
Brooklyn Dist. Atty. Ken Thompson said Liang, who is Chinese American and the first New York Police Department officer convicted of an on-duty death since 2005, acted recklessly when he went into a Brooklyn housing project and fired a shot that ricocheted off the darkened stairwell walls before killing Akai Gurley several floors below in November 2014.
"There is no evidence, however, that he intended to kill or injure Akai Gurley," Thompson said in a statement Wednesday. He recommended that Liang serve five years of probation with six months of home confinement, plus 500 hours of community service.
"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," Thompson said, adding: "There are no winners here. ... This tragic case has always been about justice and not about revenge."
The sentence will probably be a disappointment to activists aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, which has pushed for more aggressive investigations and prosecutions of police officers implicated in questionable shootings.
But a light sentence will probably be welcomed by Chinese Americans who held rallies in major cities on Feb. 20 protesting Liang's conviction, expressing concerns that Liang was being scapegoated.
About 10,000 people demonstrated in support of Liang in New York City, and several hundred demonstrators gathered in downtown Los Angeles, with some holding signs that said "Save Peter Liang," "Accident not crime" and "All lives matter."
In a statement provided to the Los Angeles Times, Liang's attorneys, who have appealed the conviction, said they still believed Liang is innocent -- and that the shooting was "an accident, not a crime" -- but they said the prosecutor's decision was "exceptional."
"Often, those who win see no need for restraint," said the statement from attorneys Paul Shectman and Gabriel Chin. "That is what makes Dist. Atty. Thompson’s decision to recommend a non-jail sentence so exceptional.
"Although we disagree with Mr. Thompson on the fundamental issue of Peter’s culpability, he deserves praise for his dispassionate and courageous decision that incarceration is not called for in this case."
Liang's killing of Gurley, 28, came at a time of intense scrutiny of police shootings around the nation, and black protesters often cited Gurley's name at demonstrations.
Liang, who had been on the job for 11 months, was patrolling a housing project called the Pink Houses when he said he was startled by a sudden noise and accidentally fired his gun. The bullet ricocheted off a wall and fatally wounded Gurley, who was in the same stairwell several floors below.
Prosecutors said Liang shouldn't have had his gun out, and alleged that Liang fretted about losing his job instead of immediately reporting the shooting to his superiors. They also said Liang did nothing to help when he and his partner descended the stairs from the eighth floor and found Gurley lying in a pool of blood on a fifth-floor landing.
Liang had faced up to 15 years in prison for the conviction. He was fired from the NYPD after the verdict.