Four white police officers were charged with second-degree murder Wednesday for killing an unarmed African immigrant in a hail of 41 bullets--a shooting that has led to months of protests and a painful examination of police tactics and race relations.
Officers Kenneth Boss, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon and Richard Murphy pleaded innocent in a Bronx courtroom. They could get 25 years to life in prison if convicted.
Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old street vendor from Guinea with no criminal record, was hit 19 times Feb. 4 inside the vestibule of his apartment by members of an elite street crimes unit looking for a rape suspect. Through their lawyers, the officers have said they thought Diallo had a gun.
The slaying has frayed Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's already strained relationship with the black community, and many have accused him of failing to understand the depth of New Yorkers' anger.
Giuliani said Wednesday: "We should allow the criminal justice system to now operate."
Judge John P. Collins set bail at $100,000 for each officer, even though Dist. Atty. Robert Johnson had asked that they be held without bail. The officers left the courthouse together.
Johnson told the judge: "On Feb. 4, in the vestibule in his own building, Amadou Diallo stood blameless, unarmed and defenseless when 19 of 41 shots were fired at him, struck him and killed him. . . . These four defendants intended to take his life."
After leaving court, one of the officers, Carroll, shook hands with supporters and said in a quivering voice, "I want to thank the New York City police officers and the Street Crime Unit for their undaunted support."
The officers were suspended without pay from their jobs.
Marvyn Kornberg, Carroll's attorney, called the intentional murder count ludicrous.
"What's the district attorney saying? That they had nothing to do that night but roll up on an individual and attempt to kill him because he's black?" the lawyer asked.
Steven Brounstein, Boss' attorney, said in court that Johnson had "succumbed to a political agenda. My client is innocent of all charges. There was no crime on Feb. 4."
In the two months since Diallo was killed, 1,203 people have been arrested in demonstrations over Diallo's death, the alleged police torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997, and the perception that law-abiding minorities are routinely humiliated by police stop-and-search tactics.
"Amadou's blood will feed the battle for justice," said his mother, Kadiadou Diallo.
Off-duty police officers and more than 25 of Diallo's friends and relatives packed the small courtroom for the 45-minute arraignment. About 1,000 demonstrators stood outside the courthouse.
Since the slaying, the Street Crime Unit has been ordered to wear uniforms instead of plainclothes, and 50 slots at the predominantly white, 380-member division will be reassigned to minority officers.
Earlier Wednesday, Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir attended a tribute to a police officer killed in the line of duty in 1996. Safir called Diallo's death a tragedy but urged critics of the Police Department to "acknowledge the tragedies that befall our family."
"We grieve for Amadou Diallo and the four officers involved and pray they get a fair trial," Safir said.