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Officer Peter Liang Opts for Jury Trial in Killing of Akai Gurley

By Murray Weiss | January 6, 2016 7:51am
 Peter Liang is escorted out of court in Brooklyn after being charged with manslaughter, official misconduct and other offenses on Feb. 11, 2015.
Peter Liang is escorted out of court in Brooklyn after being charged with manslaughter, official misconduct and other offenses on Feb. 11, 2015.
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

BROOKLYN — Officer Peter Liang, who is accused of fatally shooting unarmed Akai Gurley in a housing project staircase, will have his fate decided by a Brooklyn jury instead of a Supreme Court judge, DNAinfo New York has learned.

Liang's lawyers Robert Brown and Rae Downes Koshetz informed the Brooklyn District Attorney's office of the decision to forego a bench trial decided by a judge, which is historically the choice of a police officer facing serious charges.

“We have great confidence in 12 jurors and are unshaken in our belief that this case was a terrible accident that never fit the definition of manslaughter and should never have led to an indictment,” Koshetz told “On the Inside.”

Liang, 27, was on a vertical patrol with his partner in the Pink Houses in East New York in November when he entered a dark stairwell with his gun drawn.

The weapon fired as he opened the metal stairwell door, sending a bullet ricocheting off a wall and downward, striking Gurley, 28, who had just entered the stairway one floor below with his girlfriend.

Gurley’s death further ignited the firestorm already surrounding the NYPD since the political aftershocks of the fatal chokehold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island.

In announcing Liang's indictment last February, Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson and his prosecutors portrayed Liang as reckless and callous in the way he handled his weapon, and by failing to help Gurley and even arguing with his partner about what they should tell their NYPD bosses.

But Koshetz insists those assertions are completely false, and that jurors will acquit Liang when they hear his testimony and the entire story at trial, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 21.

“This was a terrible, terrible tragic accident,” she added. “There was absolutely no criminal intent here whatsoever.”

She insisted there were inaccurate reports about the case, including one claiming Liang radioed his union delegates rather than help Gurley.

"He is not a callous man,” she continued, claiming that Liang was shocked and "could barely breathe" when he learned someone had been hit.

Liang did not testify before the grand jury at his then-union lawyers' urging. They believed the anti-police sentiment might make the panel overlook his appearance.

But since then, Liang hired private attorneys — Brown is also a former NYPD commander in Chinatown who is well known in the Asian community, and Koshetz is a former NYPD deputy commissioner for trials.

His decision to opt for a juror trial is unusual. Police officers generally believe that a judge can remain dispassionate about the case, and that they have a better understanding of an officer's job and the subtleties of their regulations.

Koshetz said jurors take their "awesome" responsibility seriously despite their feelings when judging another person's life.

"If we can get a jury that is willing to listen and consider this, I believe we can prevail," she said.

Liang remains on the force pending the outcome of the trial.