BROOKLYN SUPREME COURT — The rookie NYPD officer on trial for shooting an unarmed man in the stairwell of a Brooklyn public housing building broke down on the witness stand Monday, claiming he accidentally fired his gun because he was "startled."
Officer Peter Liang, 27, who is on trial for second-degree manslaughter after the November 2014 shooting of Akai Gurley, 28, had to step out of the courtroom temporarily to compose himself before continuing his testimony.
The officer recounted entering the dark stairwell of the eighth floor at the Pink Houses, in East New York, with his gun drawn because of the building's high crime rate.
"I pushed the door with my right shoulder," he said. "As soon as I got in I heard something to my left side that startled me. The gun went off after I tensed up."
Liang told the jury that he didn't know that Gurley was hit until later and he went to report the stray shot over his partner Shaun Landau's cellphone.
He said he was reluctant to use the police radio because he didn't want to draw too much attention from other officers in his precinct.
"It's unnecessary to have everyone come over and abandon their post," he said. "I can handle it through the cellphone. That's what I was thinking at the time."
He said the exchange with Landau lasted just 35 to 45 seconds, much shorter than the roughly four minutes that his partner testified to last week.
Liang said he was unaware that his shot had struck Gurley until he went looking for the bullet and found the wounded man's girlfriend, Melissa Butler, frantically trying to administer first aid.
The officer testified that he did not try to take over administering first aid because "I didn't know if I could do better than [Butler], that was all."
Liang said he was so flustered in the heat of the moment that he couldn't recall the address of the building when he finally did call in the fatal shooting over the radio.
"I was panicked so much I couldn't process it in my head," he said.
"Eventually, I was able to put the address over my post. When I got there I bent down and looked at him and it looked like he was seriously injured. His eyes were rolled back."
When asked why he didn't assist with first aid, Liang said, "Yeah, there was something stopping me. Trying to get the address to put over the radio."
During the cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Joe Alexis grilled Liang about his patrolling tactics and his ability to carry out his duties.
At the NYPD Police Academy, recruits are taught to be ready for anything, Alexis said.
"Police were often presented with surprises," the prosecutor said. "Don't be surprised, expect the unexpected."
Gurley's mother, Sylvia Palmer, was not convinced by the officer's testimony and called on the jury to find him guilty.
"I need justice for my son," she said at a press conference. "I need a conviction of Peter Liang. He murdered my son and I want justice for my son."
Both the defense and the prosecution have finished presenting testimony.
Judge Danny K. Chun said he would decided on a defense motion to dismiss the case after the verdict is returned.
The case goes to the jury after closing arguments on Tuesday.