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Trial To Begin For NYPD Officer Accused Of Killing Unarmed Black Man


And in New York this week, a trial begins in the closely watched case of a police officer who's charged with manslaughter. Officer Peter Liang shot and killed an unarmed black man in a dark stairwell. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, a jury in Brooklyn will decide if that was an accident or a crime.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It was shortly before midnight on November 20, 2014. Officer Peter Liang and his partner were patrolling the dimly lit stairwell of a high-rise public housing project in Brooklyn when Liang's gun went off.

RAE KOSHETZ: It's a police officer's worst nightmare to have your gun go off unintentionally.

ROSE: Rae Koshetz is Liang's attorney. She says Liang had been on the job less than 18 months when a bullet from his gun ricocheted off a wall and struck Akai Gurley several floors below. Gurley was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. He was 28 years old. Koshetz says his death was a tragedy but not a crime.

KOSHETZ: We're not talking about someone pointing a gun at another person and hitting him. We're talking about a round going off, hitting a wall and then ricocheting and hitting this man. It was a really freak accident.

ROSE: But Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson reached a different conclusion. Thompson presented the case to a grand jury, and last February, he announced an indictment against Peter Liang for recklessly causing Gurley's death.


KENNETH THOMPSON: We don't believe that Officer Liang intended to kill Mr. Gurley, but he had his finger on the trigger, and he fired the gun.

ROSE: After the shooting, Thompson says Liang and his partner stood and argued on the stairwell for several minutes instead of administering CPR. According to some reports, Liang called his union rep instead of his superior officers. But, Liang's lawyer, Rae Koshetz, disputes that.

KOSHETZ: He did have a conversation with his partner. But at that point, he didn't realize that Mr. Gurley had been hit.

ROSE: The case has gotten a lot of scrutiny in part because it happened just months after the death of Eric Garner, another unarmed black man in New York. Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by police during an arrest. But, Koshetz says Liang's case should be judged on its own facts.

KOSHETZ: This is not a police brutality case. It's not a police corruption case. It's a terrible tragedy.

ROSE: Some in the Asian-American community say the city is making a scapegoat out of Liang to distract from broader problems with the NYPD. But police reform advocates applauded the indictment, and they continue to push for a conviction.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What do we want?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When do we want it?


ROSE: Demonstrators gathered two months ago outside the Brooklyn housing project where Gurley was killed to mark the anniversary of his death. Gurley's aunt, Hertencia Petersen, says a conviction would send a clear message to police in New York and across the country.


HERTENCIA PETERSEN: You took an oath to serve and protect the community, not take their lives, OK? And for Peter Liang to go to jail, if that's what it takes for that message to be sent, then so be it.

ROSE: But Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson says don't read too much into the charges.


THOMPSON: This case has nothing to do with Ferguson or Eric Garner or any other case. This case has to do with an innocent man who lost his life.

ROSE: If he's convicted, Officer Liang could spend up to 15 years in prison. He's also facing a civil lawsuit by Akai Gurley's domestic partner and possible discipline from the NYPD itself. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.