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Former NYPD cop Peter Liang's guilty verdict leaves a community divided

New York's Chinese community has been grappling with former police Officer Peter Liang's conviction of manslaughter for fatally shooting Akai Gurley.
New York City police officer Peter Liang sits in court as testimony is read back for jurors during deliberations in his trial in Brooklyn Supreme Court Feb. 10, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Byron Smith/Pool/Getty)
New York City police officer Peter Liang sits in court as testimony is read back for jurors during deliberations in his trial in Brooklyn Supreme Court Feb. 10, 2016 in New York City.

A day after her son was convicted of manslaughter for fatally shooting Akai Gurley, an unarmed man, in a Brooklyn housing project, Peter Liang's mother spoke publicly Friday afternoon for the first time since the verdict, saying her son blames himself for what happened that November night in 2014.

"He keeps banging his head against the wall," Fenny Liang said in Mandarin. "He said he wishes he was the one who had been struck and killed by the stray bullet."

Liang's mother spoke for about eight minutes during a press conference attended by roughly 100 Chinese supporters, many of them immigrants, at a restaurant in Brooklyn's Chinatown not far from Eighth Avenue. Wearing tinted sunglasses and dressed in black, she described how Peter Liang, who worked briefly as an agent for the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), wanted to become a police officer after graduating from college.

"This case has caused us to feel wronged," she said. "It has caused sorrow and has made us heartbroken." Overcome with emotion, Fenny Liang struggled to continue, prompting the audience to fill in her silence with the sound of applause.

Brooklyn state Assemblyman William Colton, who attended the press conference, said he had met Friday with the family of slain Det. Wenjian Liu — the Chinese-American New York Police Department (NYPD) officer ambushed in December 2014 while sitting in his patrol car in Brooklyn with his partner Det. Rafael Ramos — and that the Liu family was grieving for Liang, 28, just as they had for their own son.

RELATED: NYPD Officer Peter Liang guilty of second-degree manslaughter in Akai Gurley killing

On Thursday, a jury of seven men and five women convicted the former rookie officer of second-degree manslaughter and official misconduct, a charge that stemmed from Liang's failure to perform CPR on Gurley. Liang and his partner Shaun Landau, both of whom have been fired by the NYPD, were conducting a vertical patrol of a stairwell on Nov. 20, 2014, in the Louis H. Pink Houses when Liang fired his gun.

The bullet ricocheted off the wall of a pitch-dark stairwell and struck 28-year-old Gurley, who had entered from the seventh floor with his friend Melissa Butler. NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton said at the time of the shooting that the fatal shot "appears to be an accidental discharge" of Liang's gun.

Before entering the stairwell, Liang had unholstered his Glock 9 mm and placed his finger on the side of the gun, he testified, adding it's up to officers when to draw their weapon. Vertical patrols require that officers first check the roof, where criminal activity often occurs, and then descend the stairs floor by floor, according to testimony.

His gun in his left hand, a flashlight in his right, Liang tried turning the stairway door knob with his right hand, but the door wouldn't open, he said. So he gave it a push with his right shoulder.

Liang said he heard a "quick sound" to his left — a sound that startled him — and his gun went off.

Gurley made it down to the fifth floor landing with Butler where he collapsed, the bullet having pierced his heart and lodged in his liver. Butler knocked on the door of a resident, who called 911 and passed along CPR instructions to Butler.

Prosecutors said that after the shot rang out, neither Liang nor Landau called it in to supervisors, even though both had working radios and cellphones. Liang testified he felt unqualified to perform CPR on Gurley because he was given answers to the exam at the Police Academy and never had a chance to practice on a mannequin.

Many Liang supporters at Friday's press conference said the Chinese-American former police officer wouldn't have been convicted of second-degree manslaughter and official misconduct if he had been white. They said they believed his indictment last February and conviction were a consequence, in part, of white officers not being indicted in police incidents in 2014, in which unarmed black men were killed — those include Eric Garner, a Staten Island man placed in a chokehold, and Michael Brown, a teenager shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

RELATED: 2016 sees year-over-year spike in cops killed by gunfire

The last NYPD police officer convicted in a fatal civilian shooting was in 2005. Bryan Conroy was sentenced to probation and 500 hours of community service for killing an African immigrant during a police raid.

Cathy Dang, executive director of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, a group that addresses police and hate violence toward Asian immigrants and that has been vocal in calling for Liang's conviction, said that all district attorneys must be held accountable to prosecute white police officers.

"All the evidence presented before the jury demonstrates that Officer Liang is in fact guilty," she said in a statement. "Now, what we have left is to hold the entire system accountable."

During more than a dozen interviews in Mandarin with NBC News Friday afternoon, members of the Chinese immigrant community along Brooklyn's Eighth Avenue said they believed race played a role in the case, and that Liang was being scapegoated for the lack of indictments in other civilian deaths at the hands of police. It's a sentiment that has also been repeated in the Chinese-language press.

"After hearing the verdict, we were all surprised," said one man, who declined to give his name but said he was a worker at Sweet Cafe Inc.

Another woman behind the counter who called the verdict "unfair" added: "We don't dare tell our kids to become police officers. It's so scary."

Up the block at EG Homes Inc., a home goods store, a man behind the counter who gave only his last name as Dong said if Liang were white, he wouldn't have been found guilty. He also said Liang was a scapegoat.

"So many white police officers don't have any problem," Dong said, adding that the guilty verdict didn't surprise him. "But a Chinese officer does. [That's because] we're a minority."

At Fortune Bakery, a woman who gave only her last name as Huang ran back and forth between the kitchen and the display counter bringing out warm buns as she shared an almost identical viewpoint with Dong.

"If Liang were white, he wouldn't have had an issue," Huang said, adding she thought the verdict was unfair. "They bully Chinese. It's discrimination."

One of Huang's coworkers, who declined to provide her name, displayed her cellphone and showed a message sent over WeChat, a popular Chinese-language social media platform, urging members of the Chinese community to attend Friday afternoon's press conference in Brooklyn where Liang's mother appeared.

At a separate news conference in Manhattan's Chinatown Friday afternoon, Robert Brown and Rae Koshetz, Liang's attorneys, told NBC News they were shocked when they heard the guilty verdict announced Thursday night.

"I can't imagine how the jury determined that the people proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Peter's actions were reckless manslaughter," Brown said.

Brown and Koshetz have argued during the trial that Liang was in a "state of shock" after his gun accidentally went off, that he was unaware his bullet had struck anyone, and that he tried to make several radio transmissions about the shooting that were incomplete or did not go through.

But prosecutors portrayed Liang's actions in a different light, telling jurors in opening arguments that Liang violated key critical life-and-death training when he recklessly pulled out his gun, fired without reason, and then argued with his partner over calling for help as Gurley lay dying.

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Brown and Koshetz both said they still stick by their decision for a trial by jury rather than by State Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun in Brooklyn.

"We're back at the same place that we would be, which is that the judge now has an opportunity to consider whether the evidence was sufficient to support the charges," Koshetz said.

Liang's attorneys asked Chun to set aside the verdict, a decision the judge said he would reserve for a later date. Brown said Chun would likely announce his ruling on April 14 when Liang, who remains free without bail, is sentenced. He faces up to 15 years in prison.

Brown and Koshetz also said they plan to appeal if Chun does not dismiss the charges. On Wednesday, Liang's attorneys asked Chun to declare a mistrial, arguing that Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Joseph Alexis, in his closing statements, accused Liang of committing intentional crimes for which he hadn't been charged. Chun denied the request, saying Alexis' statements did not rise to the level of prosecutorial misconduct.

A number of Asian-American elected officials also weighed in on Thursday's verdict. New York City Council member Margaret Chin, who last year praised the indictment and at the time told NBC News that Liang had to be held accountable for Gurley's death, said in a statement: "My thoughts and prayers are with the family of Akai Gurley, and Officer Liang's family, friends and supporters. Now that the jury has reached its verdict, it is my hope that the long process of healing can begin."

State Assemblyman Ron Kim of Queens said his heart was heavy for both Gurley and Liang.

"I do not believe true justice prevailed," Kim said in a statement. "Our system failed Gurley and it failed Liang. It pitted the unjust death of an innocent young black man against the unjust scapegoating of a young Asian police officer who was frightened, poorly trained, and who committed a terrible accident."

At the press conference in Brooklyn Friday, Liang's mother said in Mandarin that she hadn't slept since hearing the verdict. Worried about her son's spirits, she added that she's kept watch over Liang all day and all night.

"He has already suffered enough after the incident," she said. "And now he has been convicted of manslaughter."

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