No Jail For Akai Gurley’s Killer
Mar. 24, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — It has the makings of outrage. A young black man dead through no fault of his own. For once, there is no doubt whatsoever that Akai Gurley did nothing, absolutely nothing, to justify the bullet that killed him. The bullet came from the gun of Peter Liang, a New York City police officer. “A cop killed an innocent young black man” has become a ubiquitous theme, and it should certainly be enough to stoke anger and outrage, because black lives matter.
Liang was tried and convicted for the death of Gurley, and he will be sentenced for the crime of Manslaughter in the Second Degree. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, in advance of sentencing, has submitted his office’s recommendation:
In a statement, the district attorney, Ken Thompson, said the case was about “justice and not about revenge,” and urged that the former officer, Peter Liang, receive five years of probation, including six months of home confinement, when he is sentenced next month.
“Mr. Liang has no prior criminal history and poses no future threat to public safety,” Mr. Thompson said. “Because his incarceration is not necessary to protect the public, and due to the unique circumstances of this case, a prison sentence is not warranted.”
No jail? Outrageous? Gurley’s family thinks so.
“We are outraged at District Attorney Thompson’s inadequate sentencing recommendation,” the family said in a statement released by Mandela Jones of Communities United for Police Reform. “Officer Liang was convicted of manslaughter and should serve time in prison for his crime. This sentencing recommendation sends the message that police officers who kill people should not face serious consequences.”
There is certainly great emotional appeal in this assertion, there being overwhelming evidence that the criminal justice system is incapable of addressing killer cops, whether by failure to prosecute, inventing nonsensical excuses or special treatment for the handful who actually face sentence.
But Liang’s case isn’t like so many others. Liang’s crime was his reckless handling of his weapon. He didn’t mean for it to discharge. He didn’t mean to shoot Gurley. He wasn’t venal or malicious.
The tendency is to focus on outcome, that there is an innocent dead young man, and that demands retribution. But the crime isn’t the outcome, even though it’s an aggravating factor. The crime is the conduct committed. If Liang’s gun discharged and struck no one, he would be no less culpable of recklessness. Of course, he wouldn’t have been prosecuted, tried and convicted, but maybe sent for retraining. Maybe.
There are factors at play here that go beyond the fact that Peter Liang’s monumental incompetence at handling his weapon. There is the problem with the NYPD’s training, that they would hand a gun to someone so incapable of using it safely that they have no business having a gun at their side. There is the problem of a cop so fearful, so cowardly, that he had a gun drawn even though there was no threat to justify it. And there is the problem of systemic racism, that his fear arose from doing a “vertical” in a stairwell in the projects.
Had these factors not been in play, there is a good chance Akai Gurley would be alive today.
But these aren’t the factors to be considered in fashioning a sentence. The options available to the court on Second Degree Manslaughter range from probation to 15 years imprisonment. By definition, every person convicted of manslaughter leaves a dead body behind. So what determines where along the sentencing spectrum a defendant should fall?
The legitimate considerations for sentence put it into perspective:
- General deterrence
- Specific deterrence
The call for a “message” to be sent to other cops, which falls under general deterrence, is the only factor that militates toward a sentence of imprisonment. In this case, however, where the offense is based upon recklessness, the message would be “don’t be reckless with your gun.” How much time in jail is justified for such an obvious and benign message? Is there an epidemic of cops being reckless? That really isn’t the cause of dead unarmed young black men.
But there is another reason for concern about Thompson’s exceptional reasonableness toward Liang. Why is it that defendants who didn’t wear shields when they committed their crime don’t get the same reasonable consideration as Liang? It’s not that Thompson’s recommendation here is wrong, though it is certainly extremely munificent, but that there is no reasonableness left for anyone else.