The progressive prosecutor — elected on a promise to salvage Brooklyn justice from the oxymoronic state his predecessor had reduced it to — did the right thing first in holding the cop to account and convicting him before a jury of his New York City peers, and again in recommending that he be let off the hook of incarceration.
The whole system failed here: in the screening that let Liang join the force in the first place and the Academy “training” that left him certified in but never actually taught CPR; in the lousy NYCHA buildings where stairwells are blacked out and elevators broken down, where the good people who live there sometimes need police to help keep common areas safe.
By recommending no jail time for Liang, Thompson made plain that he wouldn’t make one cop the scapegoat for all that, and for a national conversation about killer cops, too. But by prosecuting him, Thompson made plain that what Liang did, letting off a fatal shot in the dark, was a crime, cop or no cop.
“A lot of people have trouble getting their heads around this case, because they think it’s like other police shootings and it’s not,” explains John Jay Professor Eugene O’Donnell, a former cop and prosecutor in New York City. “The others are shoot-don’t shoot events, about decisions cops make in one second.
“That is the obstacle to charging the police, those ‘fear of my life’ shootings. The law of self-defense is extremely favorable to the police — to everybody, actually, as we found with George Zimmerman — but especially the police."
None of that, he notes, applies to Liang, and — with no legal leg to stand on — he became the rare cop to ask for a jury rather than a bench trial, perhaps in the hopes that at least one juror would overlook the law and cut him a break.
One bitter irony: Thompson’s choice not to punish Liang for going to trial highlighted how often other defendants are effectively punished for pleading their innocence. A pound of flesh frequently gets taken in sentencing after a guilty verdict, in part to account for the turmoil a trial puts a victim’s family through but mostly to “pay” for the resources trials demand of prosecutors and police.
Which is outright un-American, but also at the heart of our justice system as it normally functions. ...
Bottom line: In a complex case fraught with racial politics, Thompson did his job as a minister of justice, holding a cop to account for the fatal consequences of his actions, and trying to find the right measure of justice. ...
And that’s how our justice system should work, for everyone.
March 27, 2016
"What messy justice looks like: After Peter Liang's killing of Akai Gurley, DA Ken Thompson does the right thing twice"
Harry Siegel's excellent column in the Daily News: