At a court hearing in Brooklyn on Wednesday, defense attorneys for convicted former NYPD officer Peter Liang accused one juror, Michael Vargas, of lying to get on the jury. Liang was convicted of manslaughter in February for firing his service weapon into the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project while on patrol in November 2014. His ricocheting bullet struck and killed 28-year-old Akai Gurley. The court ruled the weapon was discharged by accident.
While the manslaughter conviction bears a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, people from both sides of the aisle were stunned to hear in March that prosecutor Ken Thompson had sent a letter to the judge recommending no prison time at all. Instead, Thompson suggested that six months of home confinement, community service and 5 years of probation should suffice.
Gurley’s loved ones were the most horrified of all. His family members and supporters have tirelessly fought back against Thompson’s recommendations. How could probation be an adequate sentence in a killing? What message does it send to the public that the first NYPD officer to be convicted for an on-duty killing in over a decade could get off with no jail time?
Peter Liang’s sentence was scheduled to be read this morning; however, the defense’s claims about the veracity of Vargas’ statements during jury selection have put the entire trial at risk of being thrown out, a trial that has now been going on for a year and a half.
Liang’s attorney Paul Shechtman accused Vargas, 62, of failing to disclose to judge Danny Chun that his own father had been convicted of manslaughter for shooting a friend. Shechtman pointed out that Vargas had been honest with another judge during jury selection for a different case and had not been selected for that jury.
The allegation came to light when the New York Daily News published an article in March about the jury’s reaction to Ken Thompson’s recommended sentence. The Daily News reported that a 62-year-old juror who did not want to be named had said that his own father had spent seven years in prison for an accidental shooting.
The NYPD killed 49 people since 2013. 61% of those killed were black, including #AkaiGurley. NYC population is 18% black.
— Samuel Sinyangwe (@samswey) April 14, 2016
The 62-year-old was quoted for saying, “What was the point of prosecuting him?” and “What did we do this for?”
“You cannot put away the average person’s thoughts here just because they are police officers,” the juror said. “They deserve to be prosecuted and sentenced just like everyone else who has the same background or committed the same crime.”
When the story went to press, Paul Shechtman sought out the transcripts for jury selection and confirmed that Vargas had never told the judge this story. In a motion to Judge Chun, Shechtman said that Vargas “lied knowingly for the purpose of securing a seat on the jury.”
This “major lie,” Shechtman told the judge, was “not accidental or inconsequential.”
In court on Wednesday, Vargas argued that he was not close to his father and had been raised in orphanages and homes for boys. He did not believe he had lied because he did not consider his father to be a “close relative” since he didn’t grow up knowing his father.
In fact, Vargas said, he wasn’t entirely sure his father had been convicted of manslaughter. “I do not know what happened,” he said. “I was young, I was sheltered.”
Shechtman also took Vargas to task for a series of stories he reposted to Facebook and comments made online that were critical of police brutality. These posts were made in 2014, before Gurley was killed.
“Every time the police kill an innocent unarmed person, they bring this country one step closer to a revolution,” one of Vargas’s posts said.
Because of these posts, Shechtman said, one can see that Vargas is “not an impartial juror,” but rather one with a “strong anti-cop bias.”
“I don’t think a juror has to disclose what’s on his Facebook page,” Shechtman said. “But what a juror has to disclose is whether he is biased.”
To continue the hearing, the sentencing date for Liang has been rescheduled for April 19. If the judge rules that the conviction should be overturned because of Vargas’s inclusion in the jury, a new trial with new jurors will be scheduled.
— CAAAV (@caaav) April 14, 2016
A group of protestors met this morning outside of the court house, dismayed at the delay in sentencing Liang and talk of a possible mistrial. As many as 500 people were reported to be fighting for justice by standing up for Akai Gurley. Among them were Gurley’s family and supporters of other black men who have had their lives taken by NYPD officers. Constance Malcolm, the mother of Ramarley Graham and Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell met in front of the courthouse in downtown Brooklyn, drawing furious crowds.
“Does the Brooklyn DA, Liang’s attorneys and the justice system think that this is some kind of a game you’re playing with people’s [emotions],” Gurley’s aunt, Hertencia Petersen said. “You’re playing with people’s health. You’re playing with people’s lives. We are disgusted with the justice system.”
“This is obviously their attempt to get him off,” Petersen said. “Stop with the tricks.”
While the prosecution cross-examines Vargas inside of the court house, the protest continues at the time of writing.
— Andi (@WangAnd1) April 14, 2016
As Ms. Petersen said, “Our family can’t take it anymore. We have been through an emotional roller coaster. We are drained and outraged by the possibility that we may go through this all over again if there is a mistrial.”