“As a former prosecutor and an academic who has been writing about police killings since the late ’90s, I see this case as the one least likely to result in conviction under normal circumstances,” Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, wrote me in an email.
A week after the conviction, thousands of protesters said they knew why jurors found Liang guilty: He’s Asian. Liang was a minority scapegoat, they said, sacrificed to a nation incensed by officers killing black men. Take the case of Eric Garner, the protesters argued. In that case, a white officer jumped on Garner’s back and choked him as Garner yelled 11 times those now famous words, “I can’t breathe!” Garner had done little more than argue with officers, and a chokehold was outlawed by police guidelines. A camera recorded everything, but even then the officer never faced a jury. That contrast raised a question—was Liang’s conviction evidence of increased accountability, of racial bias, or of both?
Liang had graduated from the police academy the year before the shooting. In November 2014, he and his partner, another recent graduate, patrolled the eighth floor of the Louis H. Pink Houses in Brooklyn. Liang’s defense called the building notorious among officers for crime, and said that’s why as he opened the door to the stairwell, Liang drew his gun, his finger off the trigger. In the dark, Liang said a loud noise surprised him. “It was a quick sound and it just startled me. And the gun just went off after I tensed up.”
Gurley and his girlfriend, Melissa Butler, had just walked into the stairwell a flight below. After Liang fired, Gurley was left on the ground bleeding from his chest, while Liang and his partner walked back into the hallway to debate who would report the shot. Liang’s partner, Shaun Landau, said Liang seemed most concerned about losing his job. (Liang later said he didn’t know he’d shot anyone.) When Landau and Liang returned, neither offered to perform CPR. Instead, Butler took instructions from an operator over the phone. For failing to try to save Gurley’s life, Liang would be charged with official misconduct.* And for shooting Gurley, he was charged with second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment.
Before Liang killed Gurley, about six months after Garner died in 2014, the New York Daily News reported that in 15 years, and in at least 179 NYPD officer-involved deaths, only three officers had ever been indicted. So Liang’s case going to trial in itself was a milestone. The contrast between the two cases––Garner and Liang’s––was taken by Asian protesters in New York as evidence of racial bias. In Garner’s death, Officer Daniel Pantaleo made an active decision to escalate the confrontation and choke Garner on the Staten Island sidewalk. Neither Pantaleo, nor other officers, nor four emergency medical responders tried to save Garner––just as Liang and his partner never helped Gurley. “The fact that the prosecutor in Staten Island couldn't even secure an indictment when a white police officer violates his own patrol guide ... but an Asian officer can be indicted and convicted for what appears to be completely unintentional behavior, rubs raw the existing frictions of race relations,” Delores Jones-Brown wrote me.