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By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A rookie New York City police officer was charged with second-degree manslaughter and five other offenses on Wednesday for the fatal shooting of an unarmed man in a dark stairwell of a housing project last November.
Officer Peter Liang was patrolling with his partner in the Brooklyn housing project at about 11:15 p.m. on Nov. 20 when his gun discharged a single bullet, killing Akai Gurley, 28, who was in the stairwell a flight below with a female companion.
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Liang's indictment by a grand jury stands in stark contrast to other cases of police officers who have killed unarmed black men. Last year, grand juries in New York and Missouri found no criminal wrongdoing in the two incidents that caught national attention, sparking waves of angry protests.
During a brief appearance at the Supreme Court in Brooklyn, Liang was charged with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree assault, second-degree reckless endangerment and two counts of official misconduct. Dressed in a dark gray suit, he pleaded not guilty and Judge Danny Chun released him on his own recognizance. Several people in the crowded public gallery shouted: "Indict! Convict!"
Kenneth Thompson, the district attorney who oversaw the secret grand jury proceedings that led to Liang's indictment, said he would show that there was no threat in the stairwell that night, and so no justification for Liang drawing a weapon.
"We don't believe that officer Liang intended to kill Mr. Gurley, but he had his finger on the trigger and he fired the gun," Thompson told a news conference after the arraignment, adding that the bullet first ricocheted off a wall before hitting Gurley. "That is our position."
Liang's court appearance comes two months after a grand jury in the borough of Staten Island voted against indicting one of the police officers who killed Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was put in a banned chokehold during an arrest for peddling loose cigarettes.
The lack of an indictment for a deadly encounter that bystanders caught on video, sparked a fresh round of rallies by protesters who say police are too quick to use violence against black citizens.
Asked whether the Garner case may have weighed on the Liang grand jury, Thompson replied: "I think it's unfair to suggest that the grand jury was trying to do something in light of Eric Garner."
Liang, who had been on the force for 16 months at the time of the shooting, is the first New York City police officer indicted for a deadly encounter with a civilian in more than two years, the New York Times reported.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has angered much of his police department by his expressions of support for some of the protests, has said Gurley's death was an "unspeakable" tragedy.
Stephen Worth, Liang's lawyer, emphasized the dangers of the housing project after the hearing.
"It's well known that police officers for time immemorial have been conducting verticals and have had their weapon drawn," Worth said. "There was nothing inappropriate, rash or crazy about it."
(Additional reporting by Shannon Stapleton and Brendan McDermid in New York; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Nick Zieminski, Bill Trott and Sandra Maler)