Prosecutors Will Not Seek Prison Sentence for Peter Liang

March 24, 2016
Peter Liang enters the Brooklyn courthouse, in a photo dated February 8, 2016. (Photo credit: Charles Eckert)
Peter Liang enters the Brooklyn courthouse, in a photo dated February 8, 2016. (Photo credit: Charles Eckert)

In a statement given to NBC News this afternoon, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson says that he will not seek a prison sentence for former NYPD police officer Peter Liang, convicted of second-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of Akai Gurley last month. Instead, Thompson will ask Judge Danny Chun to sentence Liang to 5 years probation, 6 months of home confinement, and 500 hours of community service. Defending this statement, Thompson wrote that he felt Liang deserved leniency because he does not pose a danger to society.

Chun is scheduled to make a decision on Liang’s sentence on April 14th, and he is almost certain to take into consideration the prosecution’s recommendations.

I have written extensively on this case since news of Akai Gurley’s killing first broke in late 2014 and Liang became one of the first police officers in recent memory to be indicted by a grand jury for a civilian shooting. In that time, I have been swayed by the facts of the case to support Liang’s indictment and conviction. I believe Liang and his partner Shaun Landau behaved recklessly and without concern for human life, and that they precipitated the otherwise avoidable death of an innocent, unarmed civilian. I have been further disappointed by those within the Asian American community who demand leniency for Liang using rhetoric that has at times ranged from the disappointingly under-thought to the distressingly anti-black.

But, throughout my writing, I have grappled with one issue: how to reconcile my commitment to restorative justice — that is, a belief that we must shift the focus away from offender punishment, and towards offender rehabilitation alongside repair of the crime’s damage to its victim — with my opinion that Liang should face legal accountability for the taking of an innocent life?

Of course, when difficult questions arise, it is often useful to seek out the wisdom of others. Scot Nakagawa of Racefiles wrestles with the same issue in writing about Liang’s  conviction:

The crisis of violent policing and racial profiling regimes targeting Black communities is a result of a combination of both outright racism and what that racism has been used to justify: over-policing, over-reliance on incarceration, and police agencies and individual officers who, therefore, have much too much power in situations in which they will necessarily be viewed with hostility by those who are profiled and targeted for the worst of these excesses. This seems to be the case both on the domestic policing front, and in the realm of homeland security, with direct and extraordinarily painful effects on those perceived to be Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and undocumented Latino immigrants in the U.S.

In order to end the repression and violence, we need to fight for fairness within the existing system of justice. Fairness, as defined by that system, is something along the lines of what it appears the people of the City of New York got in the case of Peter Liang.

But, we also need to transform the criminal justice system, including by reducing our extraordinary over-reliance on policing and prisons, and the pitiful under-funding of services and social systems that discourage crime in the first place; services  and systems that help people to feel less alienated and more included in society like good schools, stable neighborhoods, and real opportunity for secure and dignified employment at decent wages. And, in terms of law enforcement, we need to move away from the gun and the cage as the fulcrum of police power.

Our system of “the gun and the cage” relies upon enforcement by police, who must be deemed both criminally unassailable and morally understandable. This is the system that demands our trust in its deeply flawed calculus regarding the relative value of human lives, while it insists that we do not need watchmen for our watchmen. This is the system that indicts only a handful of police officers for on-the-job shootings, and that convicts even fewer. This is the system that would protect the rarely convicted police officer from facing the same sentence that a non-police officer might face if convicted of the same crime.

Viewed in that light, we must agree with Nakagawa’s assessment: “In order to end the repression and violence, we need to fight for fairness within the existing system of justice.” We must upend the system, but this transformation must be radical and all-encompassing. We cannot and will not achieve this transformation by demanding  selective leniency on the margins for only those most protected by our criminal justice system: our police officers. We also cannot and will not find better justice by papering over the pain of victims and their families, as has happened repeatedly throughout this trial.

I’m haunted by the words of Annie Tan, niece of Vincent Chin who was killed in 1982 in a vicious anti-Asian hate crime that galvanized the Asian American community to mass action. In discussing the absurdly lenient sentence levied against Chin’s killer Ron Ebens — three years probation and $3000 in fines for the taking of a Chinese American man’s life — Judge Charles Kaufmann notoriously said, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail… You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.”

Tan writes:

When those defending Officer Liang argue “he never meant to kill anyone,” they spout the same reasoning Eben and Nitz used to avoid prison for my uncle Vincent’s murder. That’s unacceptable.

Yet, today, Ken Thompson rationalized his unusually light sentencing recommendations:

“Mr. Liang has no prior criminal history and poses no future threat to public safety,” 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.”

Despite my copious writing on the subject, I have always felt that Peter Liang’s conviction of second-degree manslaughter is a Pyrrhic victory at best. I believe deeply in prison reform, and am troubled that our jails remain places of inhumane punishment rather than rehabilitative care. I have never thought that Liang should receive the maximum jail sentence suggested for a guilty conviction of second-degree manslaughter — fifteen years. But, if Liang does not deserve to serve time in jail because he lacks a criminal history and poses no threat to society, then the same should be true for the thousands of people — predominantly Black men — who are currently serving “mandatory minimum” sentences despite having little or no criminal record or a history of violence. Yet, when our criminal justice system allows for selective leniency to reflect “punishment [that fits] the criminal” rather than the crime, too often those protections shield the privileged while they victimize the already marginalized.

Put more simply: I do not understand how anyone might call it justice that an unarmed Akai Gurley may end up having spent more time in jail for selling small amounts of drugs than Peter Liang might end up serving for killing him.

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  • mmjames

    This is really getting frustrating.

    “so I brought up DUI cases as well to show you why it is wrong to compare two different field-sectors without looking at the different variables involved (medical malpractice has insurance industry involved), it is like comparing apples to oranges”

    If this is indeed the point you are trying to make then *just state it*. Starting off with “A better analogy would be, most DUI manslaughter cases for accidental deaths usually rule in favor of the victims, with 5 years sentencing of serving time on average.” followed another bulky justification is very loopy way of making that point. And if it isn’t already apparent, I asked whether you (and others here) are also furious that there are a hundred thousand accidental medical deaths , NOT whether there should be more doctors on trial or in jail. I DID add “assume that hospitals received signed waivers in 100% of cases” because I’m not a lawyer and can’t comment on the difficulty of these types of litigation. I just wanted to know if a single cop accidental death can cause so much anger, how about a hundred thousand per year in the medical field (ie many, many more lives cut short because of preventable mistakes).

    As for your two examples, Randy Trent Harrison I don’t want to discus because it is purely intentional police brutality and not an accident.

    The second, Johannes Mehserle, is more interesting. Here we have a case where the only thing separating this from murder are the claims that he thought the victim was reaching for a (non-existent) gun and that he thought he was using his taser. Both claims that (in this case as well as in general) can’t be verified one way or the other by even video. I am sure these are the same explanations that got many a cops off from prison before but by themselves wouldn’t work anymore. Look, you can’t not give jail time because these excuses can be conveniently used in all police brutality shooting cases so excusing Mehserle WOULD be permission to conduct executions. Is this your best example as an accidental killing???

    I have already stated that giving lenient treatment for cops, doctors etc makes sense to me but it more a morals and values judgement call. These professions are tough and they are forced into doing acts that involve life and death under uncontrolled environments REPEATEDLY. I doubt I will EVER be forced into those situations. Even if I had the proper make up and qualifications to be a cop, I would never join with the awareness that a true accident still can result in me being put in the slammer. It just wouldn’t be worth it.
    I’ve already mentioned this to Jenn: If you think accidents involving cops should be more punishable, then by all means lobby for it. Just remember Peter Liang is not the first and will not be the last cop to accidentally kill someone so bring those into your arguments as well.

    I truly believe this will be the last time I talk about this matter on this site. I honestly pop blood vessels in my brain just trying to comprehend where some of you folks are coming from when you say what you say 🙁

  • Skeet Duran

    You’re frustrated because you refuse to acknowledge the opposing viewpoints, you just want to inject your one-sided viewpoints and expect others to agree with you, when in reality there are 2 sides to everything.

    If you think accidents involving cops should be more punishable, then by all means lobby for it.

    Even if your suggestion to lobby for all accidents involving cops gets passed and succeed, you’re going to run into problems from the protesters’ outrage like: “Why are accidental shootings garner longer sentence terms than 1st degree murders involving cops?”

    IF the lobby gets passed and the accidental shootings mandatory sentences elevated up to 5 years, and then what? Do you really think that’s going to uphold when police brutality murders keep getting away scot-free?

    Do you really think there’s no correlation between accidental shootings and police brutality? Lobbying for increase punishment for police accidental shootings requires an overhaul of the entire police staff’s training protocol regime which involves police brutality’s handling in pressure situations. So the best bet is to lobby for the whole justice system and demand accountablity for all cases of police brutality. Something all 3 of us talked about a long time ago, in the other thread I mentioned that protests only for Liang facilitates police violence without responsibility, and I brought up four Asian cases John Ho, Johnnie Nakao, Hai Nguyen, and Yi Tzu Chen and all other police brutality cases to be more outrage by the public including the protesters and pro-Liang supporters.

    The justice system as it is right now with only about 10% to 20% of deaths being punished for all police brutality, while the rest got away with murders scot-free, so how do you expect accidental deaths by cops to be punished anymore than that, if you don’t address police brutality? This is the reason why since the beginning we suggested and encouraged the protesters and all pro-Liang supporters to demand justice and punishments for ALL shooting deaths by cops, including the Travon and Mike Brown cases. This is what Cathy Dang and the CAAAV of Organizing Asian Communities were advocating for.

    Your argument is that you don’t want to talk about police brutality cases, you only wanted to talk about accidental shooting cases, well it’s not going to work as I pointed out above, the justice system cannot punish accidental manslaughter more than 1st degree murders. So first and foremost, we have to demand justice for all police brutality cases.

    If this is indeed the point you are trying to make then *just state it*.

    I did state it, you just wouldn’t listen. Since the beginning I said comparing the two is like comparing apples to oranges because of the eXtra-factors involved in the medical field 1) many patients signed the consent release forms, 2) insurance industry controls the medical industry. Unless you think Akai Gurley signed a consent release form to allow cops to touch his body, or he had a package of insurance coverage, these 2 X-factors make it just as worse as comparing to DUI cases with the drunkiness x-factor.

    As for your two examples, Randy Trent Harrison I don’t want to discus because it is purely intentional police brutality and not an accident.

    The second, Johannes Mehserle, is more interesting. Here we have a case where the only thing separating this from murder are the claims that he thought the victim was reaching for a (non-existent) gun and that he thought he was using his taser.

    So you think your opinions about these 2 cases are more correct than the actual results of these cases? I wasn’t looking for your opinions to be honest, the evidence and the results of these 2 cases are already decided by the juries and the courts, there’s no second guessing. I wanted to show to that there are already actual cases that ruled against the cops with actual convictions of manslaughter and a minimum sentence terms of at least 2 years for each case. My opinions or your opinions about these 2 cases are irrelevant.

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