On February 11, 2016, while deliberating their verdict following former NYPD policeman Peter Liang’s 14-day murder trial, the jury required a full day to discuss their decision.
Karlin Chan, a Chinese activist who helped Liang throughout the case, recalled that he knew what the jury had decided on the moment they came back to the courtroom. “Normally, if they don’t look at you, that means they voted guilty,” he said. “When they came in, they didn’t look at Peter.”
Liang was convicted of Manslaughter in the Second Degree and another charge of Official Misconduct for shooting Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man. He faced 15 years in prison before the sentencing in April.
That night, Peter Liang was suicidal. Christine Leung, a former NYPD detective, and a few close friends stayed overnight with him. Liang was weeping, hitting his head with his own fists. Leung said she was the last one to leave, holding his hands, and waiting for the sun to rise again. “An Asian cop in jail, who shot a black guy, can you imagine that?!” Leung recalled.
The conviction shocked Peter Liang and his family, but their feelings of dismay and anger were shared widely in New York’s Asian communities. Protestors called Peter Liang “the Scapegoat,” arguing that white cops who shot unarmed victims in complicated circumstances almost always walked, yet Liang was accused of murder.
A petition to drop Peter Liang’s charges circulated rapidly through WeChat, a Chinese messaging and sharing app. Thousands of people signed it, and many street protests followed in approximately 40 cities nationwide. The usually apolitical and invisible Asian-American communities took a rare and forceful stand.
Peter Liang and his family did not comment for this article. To understand the complexity of this case, it is necessary to return to the beginning, a night of confusion and death illuminated in hundreds of pages of court records, documents, and press coverage.
November 20, 2014, was a chilly night. NYPD housing officer Peter Liang, 27, and his partner Shaun Landau, 28, were working over-time on “vertical” patrol duty at the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York. They had been police officers for about eight months now. Although the rookies should typically patrol under supervision, there were just not enough senior officers around.
Two buildings away, Akai Gurley, 28, was ready to visit his girlfriend, Melissa Butler, who also lived in the Pink Houses. He put on a grey sweatsuit, told his fiancé, Michelle Ballinger, that he was going to the gym, and headed to Butler’s apartment. They had been dating for three years since they met in a local store. He told her that he and Ballinger were just friends.
Butler did braids for a living. Gurley planned to hang out with her and get his hair done. Next week, he was going to Florida with Ballinger for Thanksgiving.
As they began their patrol, Liang and Landau took the elevator to the top, to sweep each floor downwards using the stairs. The lights were broken when they got to the eighth floor. The officers continued with flashlights. This was their second time working in the Pink Houses.
Butler lived on the seventh floor, where the lights were also broken. She braided Gurley’s hair into corn rolls, and was ready to walk him to the lobby. They discovered that the elevator was broken. Butler usually wouldn’t use a dark stairwell, as Pink Houses was known as one of the most dangerous housing projects in the city. But that night, she had Gurley.
Above them, Landau pointed his flashlight into the stairwell through the small window on the door. It was pitch black. Liang stepped in front of him. Knowing the stairwell as a place for drug transactions, robberies and even rape, he drew his pistol with his left hand and pointed the gun directly in front of him. He held the flashlight in his right hand and pushed the heavy door open with his right shoulder.
At the same time, Butler and Gurley entered the stairwell and heard the door closing upstairs, “Boom.” Gurley closed the door behind him, “Boom.” Then, a loud “Bang” immediately followed. It was the sound of a gunshot from above. Butler saw a flash of light, then sprinted downstairs. Gurley was behind her. “Uh!” he cried as they ran down to the sixth floor. By the fifth floor, Gurley collapsed, Butler ran back up to him. Blood was visible through his sweatshirt. “You all right?” Butler asked. He looked at her but did not speak.
Liang and Landau came out to the hallway above. They hadn’t realized a man was shot. Their ears were still ringing from the echoes in the narrow stairwell. Neither of them wanted to call their supervisor. They argued.
Butler rushed to a neighbor living on the fourth floor. She banged on the door. “My boyfriend has been shot!” The neighbor called 911 immediately. She stayed with Butler in the hallway, giving her CPR instruction to use on Gurley as she heard it from the operator. Butler was crying, and trying her best to save Gurley.
About four minutes later, the officers decided to find the bullet shell from the shot they knew had been fired. They heard a woman wailing as they ran down the stairs. What they saw next was a black man lying in a puddle of blood, and a woman pressing on his chest desperately.
“Oh, my God I can’t believe I hit somebody,” Liang said in shock.
Gurley’s eyes were rolled back, Liang recalled in court. He asked Butler and the neighbor multiple times of the address, but he couldn’t process the information. A few more minutes passed before he radioed in, “Pink Post One, male shot, call a bus!”
It turned out that Liang’s bullet had ricocheted off the cinderblock wall in the stairwell, flattened as it bounced, and pierced through Akai Gurley’s heart.
He stared blankly, then his eyes turned bloodshot red, Butler recalled in court. Three other officers rushed to the scene and took over the CPR. But Gurley was already gone. He always wanted to be famous. He was going to see his family. Instead, the somber hallway of Pink houses and Butler’s tears concluded his life.
Peter Liang collapsed in the hallway. “Everything just sunk in. I was thinking about everything that happened. I just couldn’t believe someone was hit,” he later testified. “I just broke down.” EMS gave him a mask to breathe in and a pill to calm down.
Liang had just gotten married a few months before. He was starting the career he had always wanted, a proud Chinese American police officer. He was going to take good care of his mother. But everything went wrong when he stepped into that stairwell.
Melissa Butler was later taken to the 75th precinct for statement. She was told that the District Attorney, Kenneth Thompson, wanted to speak to her.
In February, 2015, Liang found out that he faced five charges–– Manslaughter in the Second Degree, Criminally Negligent Homicide, Assault in the Second Degree, Reckless Endangerment in the Second Degree, and Official Misconduct. His classmate and patrol partner Shaun Landau decided to testify against him, in exchange for immunity.
His case was assigned to lawyers from Patrolmen Benevolent Association (PBA). According to the Chinese media, the organization and its head Pat Lynch, who supported the accused NYPD officer Daniel Panteleo during the Eric Garner trials, were absent when Peter Liang stood trial.
In March, Karlin Chan’s godson, Timmy, along with Peter Liang’s basketball coach asked Chan for help. Timmy grew up with Liang. They said he was a good kid, and that the police department and the city were going to railroad him.
“To me, it clearly looked that way,” said Chan. “The police department internal affairs determined it was accidental discharge, but the Brooklyn DA trumped up the charges and said it was manslaughter.”
After the shooting, Peter Liang was a wreck. He never left home and he couldn’t sleep. According to his mother’s statement in the Chinese media, he lived in disbelief and banged his head on the wall repeatedly.
One day, Chan visited their family home in Brooklyn. He greeted Liang’s mother and younger brother, and found Liang in his room. His first impression of the accused was that he was shy, very reserved and quiet. “He’s not your stereotypical aggressive officer type,” Chan recalled. “He doesn’t have a macho type of mentality.”
Liang told him what he remembered from that night. They talked for an hour and half. On a second visit, Chan brought his friend Robert Brown, a former officer and now a lawyer. They told him that he shouldn’t stay with the union lawyers from PBA. “They’re going to throw you under the freaking bus.” Chan suggested that Liang interview a few more lawyers before deciding.
Liang’s mother was scared, Chan recalled. “There was already a demonstration against Liang on Brooklyn Bridge,” he said. “The newspapers went crazy, writing about this and that. And she panicked.”
“His mother and wife didn’t know how to comfort him anymore,” said Christine Leung, a former NYPD detective who tried to help Liang. Leung had joined the police force in 1984, and worked in Narcotics and the Major Case Squad. She was the basis of “Tea and Justice,” a documentary on Asian American female officers. After retiring in 2004, she ran a small restaurant on Essex street in Manhattan called “Jia” –– meaning “home.”
Leung met Peter Liang over lunch and started to consult him. Sometimes, Liang and his wife would stay at Leung’s family apartment for a few days. From her years of experience on the job, she understood the emotional burden he was carrying.
“As an officer, people come to you for help, and they blame you when something went wrong,” said Leung. “People don’t realize that becoming an officer means you put your life on the line, and you put your family’s well-being at risk. And the media hasn’t been kind to him. Nobody cared that he’s a son, a husband, and a human being.”
Joining the police force had always been Liang’s dream. Growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, he witnessed several crimes targeting Asian residents. When he was five years old, he watched two black men robbing his mother of her golden necklace, his mother said during a press conference. Although he had a stable job at the U.S. Customs service, he quitted and enrolled at police academy.
Throughout the case, both Karlin Chan and Christine Leung accompanied Liang to court. He and his mother announced in November 2015 that they decided to hire Robert Brown and Rae Downes Koshetz as his defense lawyers.
On January 25, 2016, the trials opened. In addition to evidence presentation and testimonies, the jurors were allowed to test Liang’s pistol and shoot blank shots in court. “It was very staged,” said Leung. “The way they placed the charges, like they were trying [to nail him.]”
Chan claimed that DA Thompson believed Liang and Landau tried to cover it up that they intentionally shot Gurley. “The other [shooting] cases definitely had influence on this one.”
The trial was a major event for the NYPD, but the bigger story was to be found outside the courthouse, in the growing anger stirred among Asian-Americans.
In 1994, Brian George, a black NYPD housing officer, fatally shot 13-year-old Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr. by accident. No charges.
In 2004, Richard S. Neri Jr., a white NYPD housing officer, fatally shot 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury Jr. by accident. Not convicted.
In 2014, Daniel Pantaleo, a white NYPD officer, killed 43-year-old Eric Garner with chokehold. Not convicted.
In 2014, Peter Liang, an Asian NYPD housing officer, fatally shot 28-year-old Akai Gurley by accident. Charged with manslaughter and convicted.
The mentality of Asian American protesters was rather simplified: Either you protect all of them, or none of them. Journalist Jay Caspian Kang felt stuck in the middle. “Feeling like a race traitor for applauding Liang’s conviction while also feeling like a race traitor for questioning it,” he wrote.
The division between Asian and black communities widened. Although some were able to think about the Peter Liang case impartially, many New Yorkers only saw Asian Americans protesting to protect a cop that fatally shot yet another black man.
Chan also believed that Thompson saw an opportunity to deliver visible justice before his next election. If he acted opportunistically, for politics, “it back-fired on him,” he said. “I think he never expected the Asian communities to come up so strongly nationwide to fight for equal justice. They wanted equal application of the law.” Thompson died of cancer in October 2016.
On the surface, it seemed that the Peter Liang case united Asian Americans across the country. The reality within the community was less inspiring.
“It was a real shit show,” said Chan. “Sometimes I think I should’ve never got involved.”
After the conviction, at trial Peter Liang’s lawyers Brown and Koshetz vowed to appeal. Karlin Chan introduced Liang to Robin Mui, the president of Chinese Action Network (CAN) and the CEO of the U.S. branch of Sing Tao Daily. Mui had done fundraising for defendants before, which was why they went to him for help. Mui had also known Christine Leung for a long time. He had once been an auxiliary police officer and a reporter. They met through the NYPD Asian Jade Society and he sometimes tagged along with Leung when she was a detective.
They met at Brown’s law office with Liang and his parents. “Shy, scared, typical ABC (American-born Chinese),” Mui recalled of his first impression of Liang. “I didn’t like his mother very much,” he continued, referring to her dyed red hair, high heels, fancy bags, and long nails. “‘You’re here to ask for the community’s help,’ I said, ‘dress down.’”
Together, they hosted a press conference to raise fund for Liang’s legal fees. Liang’s mother and Chan attended. Chan started a campaign on GoFundMe, which didn’t raise much before it got shut down because the site doesn’t support fundraising for convicted criminals.
By that time, people had already approached Chan and Liang about their choice of lawyers. “Because it was such a high-profile case, everybody wanted to attach their name to it,” Chan said. “I would get three or four phone calls every day telling me to hire this or that lawyer, I always tell them that I don’t make the call, Peter does.”
In the midst of everyone dragging them here and there, Liang and his mother were confused. He was looking for help, Chan recalled. He was still in shock, but no one truly came to his aid wholeheartedly.
Stores placed jars on their counters to fundraise for Peter Liang. Robin Mui connected the family with a Korean lawyer named Gary Park who was willing to establish a trust fund for free. The board of trustees should be Park, Liang’s brother, and a community member. Both Liang and his mother agreed that the trust would serve as the official source for contributions. However, Mui later discovered that Liang’s mother went to the Lin Sing Association for advice, denounced the trust fund they just established, and put Lin Sing as the official one. She did not comment for this article.
“That’s a woman you can’t trust,” Mui said. “She went to different associations asking for money, she always wants to be in the spotlight, acts like she’s crying in front of cameras. Even Peter said he doesn’t like that.”
Chan said this trust fund never got much money because of all the gossiping and fractionalism. “There was so much distrust in the Chinese community,” he said. “Eddie Chiu from Lin Sing Association said that Robin will just keep the money. Everybody wants to be the leader of civil rights.”
Soon enough, many organizations and businesses started raising money for Peter Liang nationwide. According to reports, a dumpling restaurant owner charged $20 per bag and claimed that the money would go to Liang’s family. They never got the check, according to Karlin Chan. Another Chinese restaurant owner took a picture with Liang’s mother holding a big check. She later called Chan and told him that the check bounced. Not to mention the fund Lin Sing Association raised, which was recently under investigation, according to Robin Mui.
On April 19, 2016, Judge Danny Chun sentenced Peter Liang to five years of probation, 800 hours of community services, and no jail time, based on DA Ken Thompson’s recommendations.
Liang was relieved. Asian American communities rejoiced. However, now that there was no need to appeal, the question arose: Where did the money go?
Many contributors were not wealthy, but they gave what they had to support Liang. Both Mui and Chan believed that the spare funds should go back to the community. However, Peter Liang and his mother never clarified how much money they received.
“It’s very frustrating. His mother is not answering any questions,” Chan said. “Chinese wanted to raise money to help you,” he continued. “We’re not raising money to help you buy a car.”
When asked if she thinks the family received the donations, Christine Leung said, “Oh his mother definitely got the money.”
Opportunists turned two families’ tragedy into a booming business. Even till this day, nobody knows how much money have been raised during the Peter Liang case.
As for Liang himself, he has finished community service and is currently working in a Chinese-owned warehouse in Brooklyn, according to Chan. He still lives at the family home, on the second floor, with his wife. He visits Leung’s restaurant sometimes and chats with her and the regulars at the dark wooden bar.
However, every time he closes his eyes, according to Leung, he still travels back to that chilly night, the Pink Houses, the gunshot, the fifth floor, and the sight of Akai Gurley lying in his own blood, his eyes wide open.