Liang’s defense argued misleading statements made by juror Michael Vargas tainted former NYPD officer’s manslaughter conviction but a judge disagreed
A Brooklyn judge has denied a new trial for Peter Liang, the former NYPD officer who killed an unarmed Akai Gurley in 2014. Liang’s defense argued Thursday that misleading statements made by juror Michael Vargas tainted Liang’s February manslaughter conviction, but Kings county supreme court justice Danny Chun did not agree. The ex-officer will be sentenced Tuesday.
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“It was not a deliberate withholding,” Chun said in his dismissal.
The hearing forced Chun to postpone Liang’s sentencing, which was supposed to take place Thursday morning.
Liang’s attorney Paul Shechtman said he was “very disappointed” by the decision.
In response to the stalled sentencing, protesters held a rally outside the courthouse demanding justice for Gurley on Thursday morning. Roughly 200 gathered with signs and listened to speeches from family members of Gurley and other victims of police violence.
“Stop killing Akai again and again with your tricks”, said Hertencia Petersen, Gurley’s aunt. “This is unacceptable. This is a disgrace to your legacy. This should not have happened,” she continued, addressing Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson.
Thompson’s office secured Liang’s conviction with an aggressive prosecution, earning praise from Gurley’s family after the jury came back with a guilty verdict. Weeks later, however, when the DA recommended a sentence of house arrest and community service for the officer rather than prison-time, the family’s opinion of Thompson soured.
“District attorney Thompson was elected on the promise that he would not allow officers to act as if they are above the law and that he would help restore confidence in the justice system.” The family said after the DA’s preference became public. “His sentencing recommendation is a betrayal of that promise.”
Peterson reiterated that point Thursday. “We want Peter Liang to be sentenced and serve jail time just like any average civilian who is convicted of the same crime,” Petersen said. Liang’s manslaughter conviction carries with it a potential sentence of 15 years.
In asking for a mistrial, defense lawyers for Liang pointed out that Vargas did not disclose during jury selection that his father was sentenced to prison for accidentally shooting and killing a friend. It was also revealed after Liang was convicted that Vargas had made Facebook postings critical of police in the past. One posting reported by the New York Daily News featured a caption on a video of a cop punching a woman that read “Are the police a legal gang.”
Vargas was subpoenaed by Liang’s attorneys to appear at a hearing Wednesday that frequently became loud and contentious. Vargas defended not mentioning his father’s arrest by testifying that he and his father were not close, and that he did not know for a fact that his father had been convicted of manslaughter.
Chun agreed, stating in his decision: “the court finds he has a rambling way of answering questions and it is entirely conceivable he could not think of his father because he felt distance from his father, or he searched his mind and it didn’t enter his mind.”
Phillip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green University said Chun was likely to be weighing, as part of his decision, the likelihood that an appeals court would overturn the case down the line. Stinson said the “threshold question” has to do with whether or not “that person could be unbiased in their role as a juror”, a threshold Chun apparently felt Vargas passed.
Shechtman said the exchange proved that Vargas was “not an impartial juror” and “not an honest man”, adding that Vargas was “likely to be an issue on appeal”.
Ling was convicted in February for an incident on 20 November 2014 when Liang and his partner Shaun Landau were conducting a “vertical patrol” in a public housing building in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York. Liang entered a darkened stairwell with his weapon drawn and, according to his testimony during the trial, he was startled by a noise and his gun “just went off”.
The bullet ricocheted off a wall and struck 28-year-old Gurley, who had just entered the stairwell, in the chest.
Liang was also convicted of crimes related to his failure to render aid to Gurley as he laid dying from the bullet wound. Liang testified that he broke down when he realized what had happened, and that he was not properly trained on emergency resuscitation as a police cadet. He was fired immediately after the verdict.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.