Following a press conference in which new details emerged concerning the immediate minutes after her nephew’s shooting, Gurley’s aunt, Hertencia Petersen, walked to a bed of microphones, and asked to no one in particular the same question Eric Garner and Michael Brown’s families had before her.
“Where is the justice?” she said. “Because you’re a cop it does not give you permission to take someone’s life. ”
It’s a moment that has recurred with chilling frequency in the last year, a grieving family member calling for justice after a loved one's death at the hands of a police officer.
However, earlier that day the judicial process in Brooklyn had diverged sharply from what transpired in Furguson and Staten Island, with a grand jury returning a six-count indictment of Officer Peter Liang, the rookie cop who shot Gurley in a stairwell at Brooklyn’s Pink Houses in November.
If convicted of the most serious charge of manslaughter, Liang could face up to 15 years in prison.
“Shortly after Akai Gurley died, I promised the people of Brooklyn that we would conduct a fair and thorough investigation into his death,” said District Attorney Kenneth Thompson in a press conference following Liang’s arraignment. “And that’s exactly what we did.”
However, in the indictment’s wake a more comprehensive portrait has emerged as to what transpired in the dark stairwell at the Pink Houses that night, an already hazy series of events that have become even more complicated with the emergence of new details.
Among the facts Thompson divulged following the indictment was that Liang and his partner, Officer Shaun Landau, argued for four minutes about whether to report the shooting as Gurley lay dying. It has since been revealed that Landau received immunity in exchange for testifying against Liang.
At the heart of the indictment were questions concerning Liang’s culpability. In the days following the shooting, Commissioner William Bratton characterized Gurley’s death as an unfortunate accident, a contention that Thompson didn’t outwardly oppose at Wednesday’s press conference.
He said it was the DA’s position that Liang had a flashlight and gun in each hand when he opened the door to a stairwell with his shoulder. As he turned a bullet was fired, ricocheting off the wall and fatally hitting Gurley.
“We don’t believe that Officer Liang intended to kill Mr. Gurley,” Thompson said. “But he had his finger on the trigger and he fired the gun. That is our position.”
When pressed as to whether the DA’s evidence allowed for the possibility that the trigger was accidentally pulled, perhaps when Officer Liang was opening the stairwell door, Thompson remained vague.
“This is all going to come out in trial,” he said. “We know that in order to fire a gun, a certain amount of pressure needs to be applied. There is no evidence that the shooting occurred because of a doorknob.”
“We do not believe he intended to kill Akai Gurley,” Thompson repeated again. “But Akai Gurley was killed.
Liang’s defense has argued that the DA’s office pursued an indictment in response to widespread outrage throughout the city after grand juries in the Garner and Brown cases determined no wrongdoing on the part of police officers in those cases.
“This case has nothing to do with Ferguson or Eric Garner or any other case,” Thompson said in response to the allegations of bias. “This case has to do with an innocent man who lost his life.”