After the advocacy of Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun reduced the charge of manslaughter to criminally negligent homicide and mandated a sentence that included no jail time for the rookie officer, Peter Liang. Thompson argued that since Liang distributed no malicious intent to shoot Mr. Akai Gurley he should not have to face time behind bars. Although many public defenders and criminal defense attorney appreciate that train of thought, Thompson’s reasoning defies legislative intent and reeks of maintaining the double-standard-criminal justice system.
Advocates for criminal justice system reform have consistently argued that there is a criminal justice system that the poor and minorities experience, and a criminal justice system that the rich and powerful experience. Study after study and report after report have clearly shown that the criminal justice is harsher on those who are poor and are Black and Hispanic. This reality is unfortunately a non-issue in the majority of households in this country. Our individualism culture has afforded us to write-off all those who have been caught in the web of the criminal justice system. Somehow we think that if we question the system—if we question how the criminal justice system operates, we are somehow making excuses for petty lowlife criminals.
The death of Akai Gurley is another opportunity for us Americans to reflect on a system that has been accused of discriminatory operation—as pitiful as that sounds. To help us digest the actions of Justice Chun and District Attorney Thompson, it may be useful to switch the perpetrator and victim in this crime. What if Gurley was in the stairwell with a weapon drawn? He wasn’t looking for anyone in particular. Likewise, he was merely aware of the dangerous reputation of the stairwell and just wanted to protect himself and his friend as they managed their trek down the stairs. Hearing a sound made Gurley jumpy and he accidently shot a round that ended up killing Officer Liang. Do you think Gurley would have been convicted of Manslaughter? Do you think he would have the district attorney argue for no jail time? Do you think Justice Chun would have reduced the charge that a jury had found him guilty of (beyond a reasonable doubt)? Do you think advocates against criminals would have been silent about officials and judges being soft on crime? Do you think there would be a majority Asian American protest brewing questioning the unfairness of the criminal justice system?
As we ask ourselves these questions and more, and attempt to honestly answer these questions and more, we can follow a true story to add to our anecdotal libraries. In March of 2016, Nefi Reyes was arrested for accidently shooting his friend Wilson Gil-Torres. Reyes was showing off his new gun and when attempting to scare Torres, the gun actually fired and a bullet struck Torres. Reyes immediately called 911 and Torres unfortunately succumbed to his injuries. Reyes was charged with manslaughter. What will the judge and district attorney do in Suffolk County, New York? Will it resemble anything like what transpired in the Gurley’s case? If Reyes is found guilty will Brooklyn District Attorney write a letter on behalf of Reyes arguing that his lack of criminal intent should not warrant a sentence placing him behind bars?
Michelle Alexander posited in her best selling book, “The New Jim Crow,” the criminal justice system has created a new caste system and the efforts of civil rights attorney can do very little to create drastic change. It is up to the masses to once again stand-up against the injustices that permeate our society. There shouldn’t be two separate justice systems in our country. As the image of lady justice suggest, there should be no special benefits given to those who are rich and powerful. Everyone, no matter your phenotype, wealth (or the lack thereof), or profession, should all be treated “equally” under the law.