NYPD officer charged in stairwell shooting of Akai Gurley testifies; Both sides rest

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N.J. Burkett is in Downtown Brooklyn with the story

When rookie police Officer Peter Liang fired his gun in a pitch-dark public housing stairwell, he at first thought he had hurt nothing but his career. Then he went looking for the bullet and heard someone crying.

He followed the sound down three flights and saw a man lying wounded and a distraught woman bending over him, Liang said Monday at his manslaughter trial in the 2014 death of Akai Gurley, who was unarmed.

"I said, 'Oh, my God, someone's hit!" Liang recalled as he gave emotional testimony. He took a brief break from the witness stand to compose himself after turning away from the court audience and dabbing at his eyes as he fought tears.

Liang said he fired unintentionally after a noise startled him while he was patrolling with his gun drawn, his finger on the weapon's side.

"I just turned, and the gun went off," Liang said, explaining that his body "tensed up."

His lawyers say the shooting was an accident, not a crime. But prosecutors and Gurley's loved ones say Liang handled his weapon recklessly and did nearly nothing to help Gurley after realizing the bullet had hit someone. Gurley, 28, and his girlfriend were taking the stairs rather than having to wait for an elevator when the bullet ricocheted off a wall.

"Peter Liang walked away and left Akai to die in his own blood," Gurley's mother, Sylvia Palmer, said outside court after hearing the officer give an account she felt showed no remorse.

Saying he beamed his flashlight and saw no one after firing, Liang acknowledged that he didn't immediately report the shot. Fearing he would lose his job, he bickered with his partner about which one would phone their sergeant privately rather than radioing in a report Liang said he felt would bring an "unnecessary" response and pull other officers from their posts.

Once he did find Gurley, Liang radioed for an ambulance for a shooting victim, so shaken that he said he struggled to relay the address, he said.

"I was panicking. I was shocked and in disbelief that someone was hit," said Liang, 28.

Meanwhile, Gurley's girlfriend, Melissa Butler, tried to resuscitate Gurley, following instructions called out by a neighbor who was on the phone with a 911 operator.

Yet Liang did not try to help, though he said he saw that Gurley appeared to be seriously injured, with his eyes rolled back.

Liang said he felt it better to wait, instead, for professional help. While his police training included CPR, he said instructors had given cadets most of the answers to pass the required test, echoing testimony his partner gave last week. The New York Police Department declined to comment on the allegation, citing the ongoing trial.

Regardless, "between you and Melissa Butler, who do you think was in a better position to provide CPR?" Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Joe Alexis asked Liang.

"I didn't know if I could do it better," Liang said, noting he didn't know what training Butler might have.

Advocates for police accountability are watching Liang's trial closely. They see it as a counterpoint to cases in which grand juries declined to indict white police officers in the killings of unarmed black men, including Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Liang is Chinese-American. Gurley was black.

Liang's testimony came four days after two other New York City officers were shot and wounded while on stairwell patrol in a different public housing complex. Officers Patrick Espeut and Diara Cruz were wounded by a gunman who later killed himself. The judge has barred any mention of those shootings in Liang's trial.

Closing arguments are expected Tuesday.
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