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Peter Liang sentencing: Measured justice or a lack of it? (+video)

The ex-police officer who says he accidentally fired a shot that resulted in the death of an unarmed black man avoided prison time after judge reduces a jury's manslaughter conviction.

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Peter Liang, second from left, leaves the courtroom after his sentencing in New York on Tuesday.

Seth Wenig/AP

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The former New York City police officer responsible for shooting an unarmed man in the stairwell of a public housing building avoided a prison sentence in court Tuesday.

Peter Liang was convicted by jury of criminally negligent homicide for the 2014 shooting death of Akai Gurley. Mr. Liang’s conviction was downgraded from manslaughter after Brooklyn state Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun ruled that prosecutors failed to meet the burden of proof for that charge.

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Justice Chun sentenced Mr. Liang to five years of probation and 800 community-service hours, a punishment Mr. Gurley’s family views as too lenient.

“There's no justice. Akai Gurley's life does not matter. Black lives do not matter,” Gurley’s aunt, Hertensia Petersen, told The Associated Press.

Liang’s shooting of Gurley contributed to the ongoing national debate regarding the use of excessive force by law enforcement against unarmed minorities. Liang, a Chinese-American, was not accused of deliberately killing Gurley, who was black, in contrast to other cases such as the Michael Brown or Eric Garner killings which resulted in grand juries declining to indict the officers involved.

Gurley’s death occurred while Liang was patrolling a darkened stairwell in a Brooklyn public housing building in November, 2014. Liang, a rookie officer at the time, fired a shot in the dark after he claims he was startled by a noise. The bullet ricocheted and strcuk Gurley, who was one floor below.

Liang says he did not know he had shot someone until he found Melissa Butler, Gurley’s girlfriend, attempting to revive him. Liang apologized to members of Gurely’s family during the trial.

“My life is forever changed,” he said. “I hope you give me a chance to rebuild it.”

Ms. Butler, and Gurley’s domestic partner Kim Ballinger, spoke out on their loss in court, according to AP reports.

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“When you stole Akai's life, you stole mine as well,” Butler told Liang.

“Because of the recklessness of that night, I'm without my partner, our daughter is without her father, a mom is without her son,” Ms. Ballinger added.

Critics of Liang’s actions and the ongoing use of deadly force say the former officer got off lightly. NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill said the sentencing sends “a deeply troubling message that police officers convicted of killing unarmed African Americans will be held to a different, and more lenient, standard of justice than everyone else involved in the criminal justice system.”

“The justice system doesn't work for all communities,” Daniel Sanchez, who demonstrated outside the Brooklyn courthouse during the trial, told AP.

But to Liang's supporters, the incident was simply an accident that was used as a scapegoat for other high-profile officer-involved shootings.

“We still feel this was a politically motivated prosecution,” demonstrator Karlin Chan told AP, while acknowledging that “Nobody really won here.”

Support of Liang stemmed from a largely Asian-American activist community, including more than 10,000 who rallied for him in February. They say that the case represented “selective justice.”

Prosecutors said that in addition to recklessly drawing and discharging his weapon, Liang did not aid Gurley as Butler attempted to perform CPR. Liang, along with his partner – who was not charged in the incident – blamed police training for their failure to help. New York Police Commissioner William Bratton launched an investigation into his department’s training practices following Liang’s statement.

Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson said he will appeal the judge's decision to reduce Liang’s conviction from manslaughter. Defense lawyer Paul Shechtman said he will appeal Liang’s conviction.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.