The Brooklyn district attorney who spent his first year retracing his predecessor’s missteps drew more eyes on Tuesday when he indicted a rookie police officer for an accidental death.
On Wednesday, D.A. Ken Thompson filed six charges against NYPD Officer Peter Liang for the Nov. 20 shooting death of Akai Gurley.
Liang, 27, walked into in a Brooklyn courtroom on Wednesday afternoon. He remained silent in his slate gray suit and tie as his attorney Stephen Worth pleaded not guilty to six charges against the recently graduated cop.
Liang is accused of accidentally shooting Gurley and then not tending to the injured man as he bled to death from a ricocheting bullet fired by Liang.
He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted, but left the courtroom on his own recognisance until his next court appearance in May.
“There are no winners here,” Thompson told reporters from his Downtown Brooklyn office. The D.A. thanked the NYPD and its Internal Affairs Bureau for their help with the investigation, which he said began only a few hours after the shooting.
Liang’s is the fourth indictment of a police officer by Thompson’s office in as many months. His securing of charges against cops has bolstered his own argument that there is no need for special prosecutors to pursue cases where police officers hurt or kill members of the communities they serve.
“It’s a real reflection on the problems with the criminal justice system that we have to commend a district attorney for doing what he’s supposed to do,” said Roger S. Wareham, attorney for Melissa Butler, who was with Gurley in the darkened stairwell where he was shot.
Wareham said that there is a built-in contradiction for most district attorneys to prosecute police officers who help criminal cases. He described Ken Thompson as “an anomaly” for doing his job.
“Too many of the other ones don’t do that,” Wareham said.
Liang’s indictment follow growing popular dissatisfaction with a Staten Island grand jury’s refusal on Dec. 3 to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who allegedly used a chokehold that led to Eric Garner’s death in July 2014.
Thompson was one of the first and few public officials to push back on a suggestion by state Attorney General Eric Schniederman’s proposal to name himself a special prosecutor in cases involving police-related deaths.
He did so again on Wednesday.
“The people of Brooklyn elected me as their district attorney,” he said. “We conduct our business in a fair manner. And there’s no reason why as special prosecutor should take over my responsibilities as Brooklyn D.A.”
In his first year in office, Thompson was lauded by the criminal justice reform community for vacating 10 convictions that his office argued were wrongful.
While the Brooklyn D.A.’s office continues to work on a long list of cases through his Conviction Review Unity, Thompson has already secured indictments against four NYPD officers, including Liang, suspected of misconduct.
In early February, Thompson’s office indicted Officer Joel Edouard, 37, on a misdemeanor assault charge for allegedly stomping on the head of a man in Bedford-Stuyvesant who was suspected but never charged for marijuana possession.
The incident was caught on a cell phone camera, and footage appeared to show Edouard pull out his gun and point it as the suspect’s head as the man struggled during the arrest.
Officers David Afandor, 33, and Tyrane Issac, 36, were charged by Thompson’s office in November after surveillance cameras caught the two cops striking a 16-year-old teen and faced official misconduct charges.
Afandor was also hit with second-degree assault for allegedly striking the teen with his gun while on patrol in Crown Heights on Aug. 29.
All the officers are being represented by Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association attorney Stephen Worth. A spokesman for the PBA did not reply to Metro for comment on the series of indictments by Thompson.
However, Thompson said it was unfair for anyone to assume the grand jury had anything to do with previous cases that motivated weeks of protest demanding police reform and declaring that black lives matter.
“This case has nothing to do with Ferguson or Eric Garner or any other case,” he said. “This case has to do with an innocent man who lost his life, and a young New York City police officer who is now charged with taking his life.”
State Assemblyman Charles Barron, whose district includes the Louis H. Pink Houses where in Liang shot Gurley in a darkened stairwell, begged to differ.
Barron linked the Gurley and Garner cases as examples of police abuse that demand legal action against abusive police, and commended Thompson for the string of indictments.
But they are not convictions, Barron warned.
“While he has a good record, going forward we’re going to keep the pressure on him,” he said.