The trial of Peter Liang is expected to spotlight police tactics at a time of major debate over shootings of unarmed suspects in a country where it is exceptionally rare for officers to face trial for opening fire.
Liang shot Akai Gurley, who was unarmed, on November 20, 2014, in a darkened Brooklyn stairwell when Gurley opted to walk down stairs when the elevator failed to arrive.
His death was described as a tragedy by police against a backdrop of nationwide protests over other unarmed black men who died at the hands of officers, which still reverberate today.
The trial opened in a packed Brooklyn courtroom, where prosecutor Marc Fliedner described Gurley as a “vibrant 28-year-old” who died because his path crossed Liang’s.
The defendant sat with his lawyers dressed in a dark suit and purple tie, showing no reaction as prosecutors outlined their case for manslaughter that could go to the jury in two weeks’ time.
Liang “fired for no reason” then “wasted precious time arguing with his partner,” worried that he would be sacked, Fliedner said.
He did not call his superior officer as he was required to do. Nor did he call for an ambulance and neither was he supposed to have his finger on the trigger under police procedure, the prosecutor said.
Gurley was shot in the chest by a bullet that ricocheted off the wall.
– No medical help –
He and his friend Melissa Butler, whose apartment they were leaving “were doing absolutely nothing wrong,” Fliedner said.
In tears, Butler knocked on apartment doors and a neighbor called 911 but Liang and his partner were “nowhere to be seen,” Fliedner said.
When Liang did appear, he “walked around” Gurley, not intervening with medical assistance despite being trained to do so.
Melissa Lopez, the neighbor who called emergency services, said Butler tried to perform CPR in vain, but was not trained.
Her call to 911 was played to the jury. Butler could be heard saying Gurley had stopped breathing, with Lopez relaying instructions from the dispatch caller.
The 28-year-old officer, who was on the job just 11 months before the shooting, faces up to 15 years if convicted. He is accused of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, assault, reckless endangerment and two counts of official misconduct.
He is expected to testify in his defense.
In her opening statement, his lawyer painted a picture of a young officer who turned into a “wreck” too traumatized to communicate after realizing he had accidentally shot someone.
– Not a referendum –
“This is not a referendum on policing in the United States,” defense lawyer Rae Koshetz told jurors.
“It was an accident,” she added. When Liang realized what had happened, he was terrified and incapable of communicating, she said.
The high-profile deaths in the summer of 2014 of Eric Garner, held in an illegal chokehold in New York, and 18-year-old Michael Brown in Missouri, sparked protests against police tactics and alleged racism.
It also spotlighted America’s gun culture, in which armed police routinely fear for their lives and the apparent ease with which they are entitled to open fire and face no legal backlash.
An analysis by The Washington Post newspaper and researchers at Bowling Green State University in Ohio found 54 police officers were charged from 2005-15 for fatal shootings while on duty — a small fraction of thousands of such incidents.
According to a database compiled by The Guardian, 53 people have been killed by US police so far in 2016, with 1,139 killed in 2015.
The Chinese-American officer and his partner had been on a routine patrol of the Louis H. Pink Houses, the scene of two murders in a year.
Liang left the roof and walked down the stairs to the eighth floor. The lights were not working and at that moment Gurley stepped into the stairwell.
Poor maintenance is a routine problem in housing projects, run by local authorities for residents who cannot afford market-rate rents.
The jury is made up of seven women and five men, and is majority white. Only one member of the jury is black.