Former police officer Peter Liang lost his bid for a mistrial on Thursday following the testimony of a juror accused of lying during jury selection.
Liang’s defense team filed the motion last week alleging that a juror, Michael Vargas, lied about his father’s manslaughter conviction and more than 7-year prison sentence. Liang, 28, was convicted in February for the 2014 stairwell shooting death of Akai Gurley, also 28.
“There’s not much memory of my father. There really isn’t,” Vargas testified, estimating that he last saw his dad about 35 to 40 years ago. “I don’t know how to explain it, he just wasn’t there.”
Vargas said hesitated during jury selection when he was asked if anyone very close to him had ever been accused of a crime, but “unfortunately” didn’t think of his father as close.
“Whatever little memory I had, I’m trying to process it in enough time to give an answer,” he recalled, adding: “He was never a member of my family. He is on paper, but in my mind he’s not my father.”
Vargas said on Wednesday that he was estranged from his father and wasn’t fully aware of the conviction, claiming he was “sheltered.”
Liang’s attorney, Paul Shechtman, also questioned Vargas’ testimony during a different jury selection earlier the same day he was chosen for the Liang trial. For that jury, Shechtman said Vargas was forthcoming about his father’s history and was dismissed.
“The one thing we know and we can say with complete confidence is that Peter Liang was entitled to a trial with 12 impartial jurors, not 11,” Shechtman said in court. “And I think the evidence shows that this juror lied, withheld important information.
“He wanted to be on this jury to exercise his bias,” he added.
Assistant District Attorney Joe Alexis said Vargas didn’t “purposefully” lie about his relationship with his father, and in fact felt badly about convicting Liang, crying and praying about it.
“I don’t believe there was a concealment,” Alexis said. “He’s not prejudiced. He had strong feelings about the police either way.”
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun said the defense had not met its burden for proof of jury misconduct.
“The court finds that... [Vargas’]ability to answer questions was not someone who was at the top level of intelligence and the court finds that he has a rambling way of answering questions,” Chun said during his decision, referencing how Vargas was asked the same question multiple times during jury selection. “It is entirely conceivable that he could not think of his father because he felt distance from his father. It was not a deliberate withholding of the father’s past.”
Vargas’ Facebook activity was also questioned again on Thursday, as Alexis pointed out several pro-law enforcement posts he shared in stark contrast to the ones Liang’s defense attorney explored the day before.
On Wednesday, Shechtman read aloud several of Vargas’ posts, including one in which he questioned “Are the police a legal gang?”
Outside court, Gurley’s aunt, Hertencia Petersen, said she hopes Liang is sentenced to jail time next week.
“They wanted Peter Liang to not be held accountable for anything. That’s the message that the defense is trying to send,” she said. “My nephew is being murdered over and over, every time we gotta come back to court.”
Liang was scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday, but the hearing — which started on Wednesday — forced Chun to postpone it. Liang is currently scheduled to be sentenced on Tuesday, April 19.
Last month, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson recommended house arrest, probation and 500 hours of community service instead of jail time. The sentence is ultimately up to Chun, who presided over the trial and the post-trial hearing. Liang could face up to 15 years in prison.
Shechtman said Liang plans to speak at the sentencing hearing, and that he has filed letters from Liang’s family as well as a few police who are friends with him. The Patrolman’s Benevolent Association did not submit anything on Liang’s behalf, he said.