In the video, Nelson Liu sits behind a wooden table in front of a nondescript white wall, his eyes facing forward. His baggy gray t-shirt has bloodstains on it; his face is bruised, and his lower lip is cut. His eyes are dazed, and he shifts uncomfortably in his chair. The time stamp of the video is October 5, 2009, at 3:02 a.m. A woman’s voice from just offscreen asks Liu, “So why don’t you tell me what happened?”
It takes Liu just two minutes to recount what that took place two years ago. It started with a heated verbal exchange outside an internet café in Sunset Park. Liu took offense to a man outside the café who checked out his girlfriend. The man responded with a flurry of Chinese that Liu didn’t understand. He notes that someone from inside the café tried to break up the fight, saying, “We’re all friends here.” Liu shakes his head slightly. “That didn’t work.”
A number of men emerged from the café and attacked Liu. He responded by pulling out a folding knife and slashing wildly at his attackers. Liu said at that point, the men backed off, and he and his girlfriend left.
“Anything else?” asks the woman.
“That’s it,” Liu said. And the video ends.
Liu is once again seated at a wooden table, this time in Part 22 of Brooklyn Supreme Court. His attorney, Steven Rubin, stands at a podium in the middle of the room in front of Judge Joel Greenberg. Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Kaye is seated near the juror’s box, where 14 men and women have their eyes focused on the bloodied and dazed Liu projected in front of them on the opposite wall. They are all present because, at three points during the brawl, Liu’s knife found a person. Two of those stabbed survived; the third, a 25-year-old named Si Lim, did not.
The trial of Nelson Liu is in its final day, and Rubin and Kaye are making their closing remarks. At stake is a charge of murder in the second degree. Rubin’s job is to convince the jurors that his client had no choice but to fight back against the mob, and that he bore no responsibility for the death of Lim.
Rubin does this by asking the jury to question virtually every single thing that has been said over the course of the trial. Liu’s poor vision, the recalcitrance of witnesses, the size of the crowd, the responsibility of those who attacked Liu—over the next hour, Rubin wants the jury to consider every possible factor.
“Put yourself in Nelson’s position,” Rubin says. “Imagine his impression of what’s going on.”
He details the injury Liu suffered to his right eye, the sheer mass of people who poured into the street from the café, the barrage of fists—here, he snaps his fingers every few seconds to count off a punch. “A completely chaotic situation,” Rubin says.
His argument is longwinded, maddeningly specific and sounds well-if-overly rehearsed. In contrast, Kaye is more to the point but has difficulty getting there. His phrases are clipped and he seems to lose his place frequently, stopping in the middle of sentences as if to catch his breath. The names of the victims and witnesses, all Chinese, are pronounced several different ways. The lights in the room keep going on and off as Kaye plays video clips and shows still images captured by security cameras outside the cafe the night of the murder. By this point, the jurors have seen this close to a dozen times in the last two hours.
Throughout these arguments, Nelson Liu sits at the defense attorney’s table, rarely moving except to watch a video being projected or to take notes on a legal pad. His hair is close cropped, and his glasses have chrome-colored sides. He wears a gray suit and says nothing. Twice, before a recess and at the end of the day, he gestures to a row of people sitting in the gallery behind him, a quick and small wave as a bailiff moves behind him to handcuff him.
Toward the end of his remarks, Kaye plays for the jury the 911 call made by someone at the café after Liu allegedly stabbed three men. The caller is panicked and rushing his words; the dispatcher has to ask several times for the address. Then the caller’s voice changes. It’s a different man, this one running down the street toward the fleeing Liu. A torrent of expletives fills the recording. This, Kaye says, is Liu, screaming at the man following him.
To this point, Rubin has tried to portray Liu as a scared man caught up in a whirlwind of anger. The knife he used was not a weapon but a tool. The crowd was an unfriendly mass trying to hurt him; his only allies were a girlfriend too small to offer any help and a friend who had already been pushed out of the way. Fear was the operative in all this, Rubin claims, not malice.
Liu’s voice is snarling and angry in the 911 call. Every other word is interrupted by a girl’s scream. As Liu screams in the background, threatening to fight anyone in his way, Kaye turns to the jury.
“Is that the voice of someone who’s afraid?” Kaye says.
Liu doesn’t look up during the 911 call. He doesn’t turn to look at Rubin or Kaye or the jury or anyone in the gallery. He simply keeps his eyes looking forward.