NEW YORK (AP) — A manslaughter conviction against a former police officer who accidentally shot an unarmed man in a public housing project stairwell will stand, a judge decided Thursday, ruling that a juror didn’t intentionally withhold information during jury selection.
Peter Liang was convicted in February in the fatal shooting of 28-year-old Akai Gurley in the darkened stairwell in 2014. Gurley was walking down to the lobby and Liang was patrolling the inside of the building. Liang opened a door to the stairwell and fired his weapon once accidentally. The bullet ricocheted and struck Gurley.
Liang’s attorneys argued that Juror No. 9 initially said no one in his family had been accused of a crime. But the juror told a local newspaper later that his father was sent to prison for accidentally shooting a friend to death.
Judge Danny Chun said Thursday that he believed the juror, Michael Vargas, did not knowingly withhold the information during jury selection. He said Vargas had “rambled on” during questioning when he was being selected as a juror.
“The court finds he has a rambling way of answering questions and it is entirely conceivable he could not think of his father because he felt distance from his father, or he searched his mind and it didn’t enter his mind,” the judge said. “It was not a deliberate withholding.”
Vargas had testified at the post-trial hearing that he had been raised in group homes and wasn’t close to his father, who died more than a decade ago. Vargas was also questioned about posts he wrote and shared on Facebook, including some that appeared to be critical of police and other where he was complimentary of law enforcement.
“I’m disappointed,” Liang’s attorney, Paul Shechtman, said. “I think we showed this person lied about his father’s manslaughter conviction.”
Shechtman said he was required to get Vargas to admit that he purposefully lied to get on the jury or that Vargas wanted to get on the jury to convict Liang.
“I’m not a good enough lawyer to get that,” he said.
Scott Rynecki, an attorney representing Gurley’s family, said that there was no legal basis to throw out Liang’s verdict and that it “was the result of a fair and impartial jury.”
Liang is scheduled to be sentenced April 19. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson has recommended Liang serve no prison time based in part on the uniqueness of the case. Thompson said Liang had no criminal record and posed “no future threat to public safety.” He said the incarceration was not necessary to protect the public.
The decision outraged some members of Gurley’s family, who said they felt betrayed.
Chun could still send Gurley to prison; a manslaughter conviction carries up to 15 years behind bars.