Despite being convicted earlier this year of second-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of Akai Gurley — an unarmed Black man — former NYPD police officer Peter Liang was sentenced today to only 5 years of probation and 800 hours of community service after the judge in his case reduced his conviction to the lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide. Consistent with Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson’s unexpectedly lenient recommendations, Liang received no jail time from Judge Danny Chun for taking Gurley’s life in 2014.
Liang’s sentencing had been delayed a week after Liang’s attorney attempted to vacate Liang’s manslaughter conviction on grounds of juror misconduct; that motion failed late last week.
Liang’s unusually lenient sentencing was not unanticipated after Thompson’s recommendations last month. In New York City, the vast majority of judges sentence according to prosecutors’ recommendations, and previous examples of police officers convicted in civilian killings resulted in similarly light sentencing and no jail time served.
Yet, the sentencing remains unusual given the judge’s bizarre decision to reduce Liang’s charge, and to hand down a sentence that is in fact more lenient even than the one sought by prosecutors. Jurors in the case had consistently agreed that despite sympathizing with Liang, the merits of the case warranted a second-degree manslaughter conviction, which in New York state typically results in a 3-15 year jail sentence if the offender is not a police officer. The question then becomes, why do police officers routinely receive different treatment? In this case, why did Liang receive not only the benefit of a charge reduction, but a lighter sentence to boot?
Liang’s light sentencing remains yet another unmistakable example of the criminal justice system unbalancing the scales of justice to protect members of their own fraternal order and help police officers escape justice. Meanwhile, the criminal justice system once again declares — as it so frequently does in the deaths of people of colour — that our lives quite simply matter less.
As his niece pointed out in an op-ed, the light sentencing of his killers meant that Vincent Chin’s life was worth only $3000. Today’s sentencing of Peter Liang reveals that the criminal justice system values Akai Gurley’s life at far less even than that: at a mere 800 hours of community service.
Gurley’s friend, Melissa Butler, who administered CPR to Gurley as he lay dying in the Louis H. Pink houses in late 2014, said in a victim impact statement to Liang:
“You took a piece of me, you took a piece of my heart.
“Akai took his last breath and died in my hands,” Butler said. “I’m suffering while you still have your life.”
No one on any side of this case seeks to apply undue suffering in this case. But, we must always seek justice. If my own child had been shot and killed by a negligent police officer — one who fired blindly into the dark despite repeated training otherwise, and then who upon discovering the consequences of his actions failed to administer life-saving measures or call for an ambulance — I could not call this outcome justice. Could you?
The system failed the family of Akai Gurley today, and we should all be ashamed.
I wrote a piece for Quartz last month. Its final paragraphs bear repeating:
I worry that too many of those who support Liang are effectively engaged in a self-serving racial tribalism that pays lip service to racial equality while implicitly demanding access to white privilege. We must resist coveting the role of the oppressor. And Liang’s fate proves that the benefits of “model minority” status are in fact transient—and easily revoked.
It is time for Asian Americans to choose differently. We must fight for a system that protects innocent lives beyond our own. The thousands of Asian Americans who showed up to rally for Liang cannot claim to support equality if they do not also take to the streets in the coming months to demand accountability from police officers charged in the deaths of Freddie Gray, Anthony Hill, and Walter Scott.
It is not enough to show up for racial justice only when an Asian American is involved. A system that undervalues the lives of black Americans and other people of color can never truly value the lives of Asian Americans.
Today, an Asian American police officer did, indeed, receive a license to take a Black life with little consequence.
Inevitably, Liang’s supporters will see today’s sentencing as an unmitigated victory, and evidence of their growing political clout. Perhaps it is, albeit, we must all agree this “victory” of theirs would be a hollow one. Today, the agitation of the Chinese American community allowed a police officer who took an innocent life to walk free.
The question remains: Will they show up for Freddie Gray, Anthony Hill and Walter Scott tomorrow?
Correction & Update: An earlier version of this article failed to note that Judge Danny Chun overrode the decision of the jury and reduced Peter Liang’s conviction from second-degree manslaughter to the lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide immediately prior to handing down the sentence. This post has been updated to reflect that point.