BROOKLYN SUPREME COURT — A judge reduced the charges against Peter Liang, the ex-NYPD officer convicted of shooting an unarmed man in the Pink Houses, and gave him a no-jail sentence Tuesday in a decision that sparked outrage from relatives and supporters.
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun sentenced Liang to five years probation and 800 hours community service for fatally shooting Akai Gurley inside a Pink Houses stairwell Nov. 20, 2014.
Liang, 28, faced up to 15 years in prison after being convicted of manslaughter by a jury in February. But on Tuesday, the judge reduced the charges to criminally negligent homicide and official misconduct.
"As I watched the video of the defendant entering the lobby of the Pink Houses, I couldn’t help but get the impression that he was entering with a serious mind of doing his job of protecting the people,” Chun said.
“Shooting that gun and killing somebody was probably the last thing on his mind. This was not an intentional act. This was an act of criminal negligence.”
Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, who pushed aggressively for an indictment in the case, requested last month that Liang be sentenced to five years probation with six months of ankle-monitored home confinement and 500 hours of community service. But the judge ordered him to fulfill 800 hours.
"There is no evidence ... that [Liang] intended to kill or injure Akai Gurley," said Thompson in a statement. "When Mr. Liang went into that building that night, he did so as part of his job and to keep the people of Brooklyn and our city safe."
Liang called becoming a police officer a "dream come true" and expressed remorse to the family and the slain man's girlfriend, Melissa Butler, who frantically tried to resuscitate Gurley as the rookie officer stood by.
"A shot from my gun caused the death of another person. I was in shock. The shot was accidental. I apologize to you, Ms. Butler, and to Akai Gurley’s family," he said before the sentence was issued.
Butler lashed out at the officer and said the experience had changed her life.
“The night of Nov. 20 2014 was the worst thing. When you stole Akai’s life, you stole mine as well," she said. "You took a piece of me, you took a piece of my heart."
Family members were similarly outraged by the sentence.
"This is not about revenge. This is about justice — and this is not justice," Gurley's aunt Hertencia Petersen said. "His life did not matter. How can you say it's OK to murder someone and not be held accountable? All black lives matter."
In a statement issued later, Thompson vowed to appeal the reduction from manslaughter to criminally negligent homicide.
"While our sentencing recommendation was fair under the unique circumstances of this case, we respectfully disagree with the judge's decision to reduce the jury's verdict and will fight to reverse it on appeal," the prosecutor said.
►READ MORE: A Look Back at the Peter Liang Trial
The disagreement was a continuation of the disputed intent of the young officer.
Prosecutors maintained that he deliberately fired his weapon into the dark hallway knowing that someone could be injured or killed.
Liang testified during the trial that he accidentally fired his weapon after he was startled by a noise in the dimly lit eighth-floor stairwell. The bullet ricocheted off a wall and hit Gurley, who retreated down a few flights of stairs before dying as his girlfriend attempted to administer CPR.
Liang and his partner, Shaun Landau, were ripped for failing to administer CPR to Gurley, despite receiving training at the police academy. The rookie officers testified in court that they had been insufficiently trained and were not prepared to help Gurley.
After the trial, the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau launched an investigation into police academy training procedures. Officer Melissa Brown, who trained Liang at the academy, was subsequently stripped of her badge and gun.
The NYPD also decided to end the practice of pairing rookie officers together.
Liang supporters said he was made a "scapegoat" after the shooting.
"Peter Liang is not a criminal. He's a young rookie sent into a dark stairway," said New York State Assemblyman William Colton. "He had a terrible tragic accident. He went in there to protect people."
Supporter Joseph Lin also felt Liang was unfairly treated.
"[Liang] is not guilty at all. This is clearly scape-goating because he's Asian and a rookie," Lin said. "We have to make sure this doesn't happen again."
Liang's lawyers moved for multiple mistrials, but Chun rejected their motions each time.
In the days before the sentencing, one of the jurors, Michael Vargas, was questioned over accusations that he had lied during jury selection.
Liang’s lawyer Paul Shechtman demanded in court Wednesday ,April 13 to know why Vargas omitted the fact that his dad served prison time for accidentally killing someone during the jury selection process. Vargas was also questioned about posts he made on social media about police misconduct.
Ultimately, Chun refused to set aside the conviction.