4 White Officers Are Acquitted in Death of Diallo
A jury on Friday acquitted four white police officers of all charges in the killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant whose death in a barrage of gunfire sparked massive protests and raised racial tensions in the city.
Most of the policemen stood weeping as the jury forewoman--a black former resident of the Bronx, where Diallo was slain--pronounced the men not guilty 24 times of charges ranging from murder to reckless endangerment.
When it was all over, tears also rolled down the face of Diallo’s mother, Kadiatou, who had attended the monthlong trial. Officers Sean Carroll, 38; Edward McMellon, 27; Kenneth Boss, 28; and Richard Murphy, 27, hugged one another and their lawyers, who had presented a united defense.
The jury, which included four black women, a white woman and seven white men--agreed that the officers, fearing for their lives, had acted properly in their encounter with Diallo. The policemen testified that they opened fire when the 22-year-old street vendor raised an object they believed to be a gun. It turned out to be his wallet. Diallo was struck by 19 of the 41 bullets fired.
Carroll, whose cry of “Gun!” started the shooting, sat dazed in his chair in the Albany, N.Y., courtroom after the verdicts were read. The trial was moved from the Bronx after an appellate panel decided that pretrial publicity prevented a fair hearing there.
Each officer stood as the verdicts were read. Carroll and Murphy cried openly as they heard the words “not guilty.” Boss closed his eyes and lowered his head in relief.
Standing under umbrellas in the rain outside the gray stone courthouse afterward, Diallo’s mother and the Rev. Al Sharpton made appeals for peace.
“In the name of Amadou and his spirit, I ask for calm and prayer as we go forward for the quest for justice,” Kadiatou Diallo told a crowd of supporters. “Justice means not for Amadou only, it means for all the people.”
Added Sharpton: “We do not want to tarnish his name with any violence, not one brick be thrown, not one bottle be thrown. We are fighting violence.” Acting as an advisor to the family, Sharpton vowed to pursue a federal civil-rights case. “This is not the end, this is only the beginning,” he said.
Immediately after the verdicts were read, angry residents gathered outside the building on Wheeler Avenue in the Bronx where Diallo was slain.
Later, as the crowd swelled to several hundred people, there were shouts of “Murderer!”
Some protesters marched to the local police precinct, where they were met by barricades and police reinforcements brought in from other parts of the city.
At City Hall, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani also appealed for calm.
“The death of Amadou Diallo was a great tragedy,” he said at a crowded news conference. “We express once again our sympathy, our condolences. . . . There is no way we can comprehend what it means to lose a child.”
At the same time, Giuliani vigorously defended the police officers. The mayor said the four men “have also gone through a nightmare.”
“It reminds us of the wisdom of trial by jury,” Giuliani continued, criticizing protesters who for weeks had gathered for mass arrests outside police headquarters after Diallo was killed. (New York’s first black mayor, David N. Dinkins--whom Giuliani defeated to gain office--was among those arrested. He and others charged that the elite police street crime unit involved in Diallo’s death engaged in racial profiling.)
“It was an eminently fair verdict under the circumstances,” Giuliani said Friday, decrying the “carnival-like atmosphere and a rush to judgment” following the shooting.
Despite the acquittals, lawyers predicted that Diallo’s family will file a civil suit against the city. Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney whose jurisdiction includes the Bronx, said she also would review the case to see if federal action is warranted.
The jurors deliberated for more than 20 hours over three days. They had a menu of charges to consider--ranging from murder, which could have carried a maximum sentence of 25 years to life, to reckless endangerment, which could have meant probation.
Judge Joseph C. Teresi told the jury before deliberations began that New York state law allows police officers to use deadly physical force if they believe their lives are in danger.
“A person who acts in self-defense is not guilty of any crime,” he said.
He explained that the policemen could be acquitted if they reasonably believed they needed to defend themselves.
Teresi urged the jurors to “put yourselves in the shoes of each defendant” and to consider how the situation appeared to the officers.
During closing arguments, defense lawyers stressed that Diallo’s death was a terrible tragedy but that the officers were justified in opening fire in self-defense because they believed he was pulling out a gun.
The lawyers said that during the four-week trial the credibility of the officers was the central issue.
Speaking through tears, Carroll testified how he had shouted “Gun!” after he saw Diallo reach for an object.
Moments later, as Diallo lay dying in the vestibule, Carroll said he kneeled alongside him.
“I said, ‘Oh my God,’ and I just held his hand,” the policeman recalled.
Carroll said he pleaded with Diallo, “Please don’t die.”
He related he looked down at what he thought was a gun.
“I grabbed it, and it felt soft,” he said. “It was just a wallet.”
All the officers testified to the same chain of rapidly moving events the night of Feb. 4, 1999. They stopped their unmarked patrol car because they said Diallo appeared to be acting suspiciously by peering out into the street and then retreating into the vestibule.
They told the jury that after Carroll shouted the warning McMellon tripped and fell backward, as if he had been shot. All four officers opened fire, with Carroll and McMellon pulling the trigger 16 times, emptying their weapons.
The officers claimed they had properly identified themselves to Diallo, and the situation escalated when he refused the command to show his hands.
A key defense witness was James J. Fyfe, a professor of criminology at Temple University in Philadelphia. Fyfe, a former New York City police lieutenant, has been a critic of police practices, but he told the jury that from the instant the officers viewed Diallo standing in the doorway of the building in the Bronx to his dying breaths in the vestibule, the officers had followed proper procedures.
Prosecutors were far more critical.
Assistant Dist. Atty. Eric Warner told the jury that the officers prejudged their victim from the moment they spotted him.
“They jumped to conclusions,” Warner charged.
“With the intent that they had, that man was doomed from the minute they saw him,” the chief prosecutor said.
Warner told the jury that the policemen never stopped to consider that Diallo, seeing husky men in plain clothes emerging from an unmarked car, could have thought they were about to rob him and could have been “frightened to death.”
“They want to write this off as a split-second encounter,” the prosecutor added. “They had plenty of time, and they started off looking at him as they shouldn’t, and their assumptions were terrible.”
The four officers testified they believed Diallo could have been darting in and out of the vestibule because he might have been acting as the lookout for a push-in robbery.
“Justification is like a knife going through the middle of the indictment,” John Patten, the lawyer for Carroll, said in his closing argument that also summed up the position of the other defense lawyers. “It slices it in half.
“If you find justification, it’s over,” he told the jury.
Times researcher Lynette Ferdinand contributed to this story.