A Brooklyn court decided on Thursday afternoon not to overturn the manslaughter conviction of Peter Liang, the former NYPD officer who was found guilty in February of shooting and failing to assist Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man.
"Today is very emotional. It's a rollercoaster, up and down. Because technically today was supposed to be the sentencing of Peter Liang but because of the politics of everything that's going on it's not," Hertencia Petersen, Gurley's aunt, told Fusion at a rally outside the courthouse on Thursday morning. "It's unfair that Akai is being killed over and over every time Peter Liang tries to halt his time going to prison. If you take the life of an innocent person, you need to serve the time."
More than 150 protestors gathered outside the courtroom before marching through downtown Brooklyn chanting "No Justice, No Peace" and carrying signs and Black Lives Matter banners.
Liang was convicted after admitting to firing his weapon in a dark stairwell during a patrol of the Pink Houses public housing block in East New York on the night of Nov. 20, 2014. During the trial, he said a noise startled him and he pulled the trigger of his gun, hitting 28-year-old Gurley on the stairwell two floors down. The jury heard that Liang did not move to help Gurley after he realized he had shot him.
His sentencing was scheduled for Thursday, but Liang's defense requested a mistrial. They argued that a juror, 62-year-old Michael Vargas, had failed to disclose that his father had been convicted of manslaughter for shooting a man—a history that could have prejudiced his perspective on Liang's case. Had the court known about that history, they said, he may never have been selected for the jury.
During his testimony Vargas said that he was estranged from his father from a young age and that he was not sure the conviction had happened. He said he didn't think this information was relevant. Court records show that he was considered for another jury the same day he was selected for Liang's trial, and that he told that court about his father's history.
Justice Danny Chun, who presided over the case, denied two previous requests from Liang's lawyers for mistrials. In his decision Thursday, he said the defense had failed to prove that Vargas had intentionally lied about his father's past, or that he had intentionally tried to be selected for the Liang trial in order to convict a police officer.
"It s entirely conceivable that he could not think of his father [when asked during juror selection] because he felt distanced from his father or that he searched his mind and it didn't enter his mind," said Chun. "It was not a deliberate withholding of his father’s past."
"There is absolutely nothing that shows any prejudice to the defendant's substantial rights," he added, referring to Facebook posts brought by the defense and the prosecution which showed that Vargas had both positive and negative views of police officers at different times.
The case has been divisive, with some Asian Americans questioning the fact that Liang, a Chinese American police officer, was convicted for his crime while many white officers have walked free in similar cases like the deaths of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown.
Protestors calling for leniency on Liang were not present outside the court on Thursday morning, but they have been at most hearings throughout the case, and have arranged large rallies across the country this year.
"It's not a real murder, it was just an accident," said Lin (who declined to give her last name), a Liang supporter in the courtroom Thursday.
But the case was less clear-cut for some who have been following the trial. Elizabeth Oyung is a civil rights attorney and a member of OCA-New York, an Asian American civil rights organization. She said the evidence that Vargas had posted both positive and negative messages about police officers on Facebook cast doubt on the idea that he had been trying to get on the jury to persecute Liang. But, she said, the case is still problematic.
"We do view this case as a case of selective prosecution. Our feeling is if Officer Liang was indicted so should Officer Pantaleo," she said after the judge's decision. "So we were watching these proceedings to be sure they were fair."
After his conviction in February, 100,000 mostly Chinese American protestors took to the streets of Brooklyn, protesting what they called a "scapegoating" of Liang.
“The goal of this shouldn’t be to free him, ” one protestor, 22-year-old Jess Fong, told Fusion at the time. “The goal of this should be to highlight the racial inequalities and the problems and ask the question why is it that the cop that wasn’t white got convicted when so many others should have.”
And other Chinese Americans, like 22-year-old Maureen Lei, were marching with Gurley's family this morning, and say the issue isn't that Liang was convicted, but that other police officers haven't been.
"I think Black Lives Matter needs to see more Asian people on the street validating their pain and validating the very real police brutality that's going on in this country against black and brown people," said Lei. "I agree that many white officers have not received sentencing at that level, but to me the solution to that is to sentence officers of all races more harshly who have murdered innocent people."
Liang was charged with second-degree manslaughter and misconduct, facing a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. After his conviction, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson recommended that Liang be given a lenient sentence with no jail time: five years probation with six months house arrest and 500 hours of community service.
That's a proposition that seemed unjust to the protestors outside the court this morning. "Had the roles been reversed, had Akai Gurley murdered Peter Liang, would the D.A. recommend no jail time? No. It's a double standard. You can't play with people 's lives like this," said Petersen.
Kerby Joseph, one of the organizers of the group Justice for Akai Gurley's Family Committee, said she sees little difference between Liang's case and other cases that involved white police officers.
"Peter Liang is not a scapegoat. He's somebody who was trained just like these white policy officers. And these white officers need to be next to him in the prison cell," she said.
Liang's sentencing hearing is set for April 19.