Op-Ed: Justice, Not Revenge

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By Ken Thompson, Brooklyn District Attorney

As Brooklyn’s district attorney, I must enforce the laws to protect the safety of our community. I discharge this duty in the pursuit of justice and not revenge and I do so with an unyielding commitment to fairness—whether that means freeing innocent people from prison who were wrongfully convicted, helping people resolve their old and outstanding warrants without the fear of being arrested, refusing to saddle our youth with criminal records for possessing small amounts of marijuana or deciding the right sentence for a rookie police officer who mistakenly killed an innocent man.

I understand the anger and confusion expressed by those who opposed my recommended sentence following the conviction of former rookie police officer Peter Liang for his accidental shooting of Akai Gurley. Nevertheless, I stand by my decision. While a private citizen is free to conflate justice and vengeance, I cannot and will not do so.

On November, 20, 2014, Mr. Liang, on patrol in the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York, Brooklyn, ignored his firearms training and recklessly fired a shot in a darkened stairwell that ricocheted off a wall and struck Akai Gurley. Mr. Liang then failed to render aid as Mr. Gurley lay dying.

My office vigorously prosecuted this case because the evidence established Mr. Liang’s criminal conduct. Justice demanded that he be held accountable for his actions. A Brooklyn jury of Mr. Liang’s peers agreed and returned a guilty verdict against him.

Our pursuit of justice did not end there. We had an obligation to recommend a sentence that recognized the gravity of the crime and its tragic consequences, and that took into account whether the public’s safety would be ensured by the defendant’s incarceration. The truth is that a number of factors played a role in this tragedy, including the paring of two rookie cops and the broken lights in that stairwell.

Justice encompasses punishment, but justice is not only punishment and, certainly, not only incarceration. Justice is also the fair application of our laws. In this case, fairness dictated our sentencing request of house arrest, 5-years of probation and substantial community service for Mr. Liang, now a convicted felon who must live the rest of his life with the fact that Akai Gurley, who was unarmed and the father of a three year old daughter, died because of his reckless conduct.

Akai Gurley’s tragic death has contributed to the nation’s urgent conversation about fairness of our criminal justice system, especially towards people of color, and I embrace this long overdue conversation.

Our country is finally seriously considering critical and measured reforms to all aspects of our criminal justice system. And we must continue to explore opportunities to repair and strengthen police-community relations, examine how and whether everyone who comes into the system belongs in it and how people are ultimately treated within the system. If the criminal justice reforms we seek are to bring about real and lasting positive change, we must always aim to balance our duty to keep the public safe with the community’s right to fair treatment under the law.

I am committed to improving the criminal justice system to ensure that all who come in contact with it are treated equally and fairly. I support systematic change, but must also evaluate each case on its individual merits. Every day, I will strive to do what is fair, what is right and what is just—because that is what I must do as district attorney.

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