Amadou Diallo/NYPD Trial: 2000

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Amadou Diallo/NYPD Trial: 2000

Defendants: Kenneth Boss, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, and Richard Murphy
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Boss: Steven Brounstein and Ben Herzweig; Carroll: Bennett Epstein, Marvin Kornberg, and John Patten; McMellon: Stephen Worth; Murphy: James Culleton
Chief Prosecutors: Robert T. Johnson, Donald Levin, and Eric Warner
Judge: Joseph Teresi
Place: Albany, New York
Dates of Trial: February 2-25, 2000
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: This case focused world attention on the issue of racial profiling, as the tragic killing of an unarmed African immigrant by four plainclothes police officers became the symbol of wrongful suspicion of an entire ethnic group by cops. Experts noted that the case mirrored the minority community's resentment of aggressive police tactics designed to reduce crime even at the expense of civil liberties. The verdict further aggravated the situation, with police brutality becoming a major political issue in New York City and elsewhere.

On the evening of February 4, 1999, four plainclothes officers of the New York City Police Department's (NYPD's) Street Crime Unit were patrolling in an unmarked car in the Bronx. Their elite 438-member squad, whose motto was "We Own the Night," boasted a record of 2,500 guns removed from the streets since 1997far more than any unit their size.

The fourKenneth Boss, 27; Sean Carroll, 35; Edward McMellon, 26; and Richard Murphy, also 26were looking for a suspect alleged to have committed rapes, robberies, and murder. The officers wore jeans, sweaters, and sneakers or boots, and bullet-proof vests. Two carried more than one gun.

The officers drove south on Wheeler Avenue. At number 1157, they saw a man lingering in the doorway. They stopped. Guns drawn, McMellon and Carroll crossed the sidewalk and mounted the steps. Murphy stood back on the sidewalk. Boss crouched behind a parked car.

Suddenly, shots were fired. McMellon fell backward off the steps. Carroll also fell off the steps. Both emptied their 16-bullet magazines. Murphy fired four times. Boss, five.

The accosted man lay face up in the vestibule, his black wallet beside him. A fatal shot had perforated his aorta. Others had punctured his spinal cord, lungs, liver, spleen, kidney, and intestines. Eleven bullets pierced his legs.

Unarmed and Law Abiding

Investigators learned that the man was a 22-year-old immigrant from Guinea named Amadou Diallo who sold videos, CDs, and tapes on East 14th Street in Manhattan and had a reputation as a devout, law-abiding Muslim. He did not have a gun. He died on his own doorstep.

A Bronx grand jury began probing the 41-bullet barrage. Police statistics showed that in 1998 the Street Crime Unit had frisked 22,414 law-abiding people prompting a rash of citizen protests, led by the Reverend Al Sharpton. On March 25, 1999, the four officers, all white, were indicted for second-degree murder.

For eight months, the protests continuedin the Bronx, at City Hall, in Wall Street, and at NYPD Headquarters, resulting in nearly 800 civil-disobedience arrests. Arguing that a fair trial in New York City was impossible in view of the intensive protests and negative news coverage, defense lawyers filed a motion in the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court to move the trial out of town. On December 16, five appellate judgesRichard Andrias, John Buckley, David Friedman, Alfred Lerner, and David Saxeunanimously decided to move the trial to Albany.

"This case has been deluged by a tidal wave of prejudicial publicity," concluded the judges, who cited a poll showing that 81 percent of Bronx residents saw no judges, justificationwho for firing 41 bullets at an unarmed man. "Even an attempt to select an unbiased jury would be fruitless."

Jury selection began before Judge Joseph Teresi in Albany on the last day of January. Four black and two white women, and six white men were chosen, with four white male alternates.

Outside the Albany County Courthouse, some 600 protesters, mostly bussed from New York City, thronged the snow-packed streets. The judge permitted television cameras into the courtroom.

"Every Police Officer's Nightmare"

Opening for the prosecution on February 2, Bronx Assistant District Attorney Eric Warner stated, "We will prove this man was cornered and killed in the vestibule of his home." Officer Carroll's defense attorney Bennett Epstein's opening countered that Diallo had ignored police orders to halt and that the police had opened fire, believing Diallo had a gun. "Mr. Diallo," he said, "had taken the officers into the no-man's land that is every police officer's nightmare. Had Mr. Diallo stopped to answer the officer's questions, the whole thing would have ended peaceably."

The bullets were introduced as evidence. Coroner Joseph Cohen described the wounds that had been inflicted after the victim had been brought down by a bullet through his aorta. Detective Joseph Flannino testified that the vestibule was well lit enough for him to do his work at the crime scene. Using photos that, on the contrary, showed how dark the area was, the defense argued how easy it was for the officers to have mistaken Diallo's black wallet for a gun. A 22-year-old neighbor of Diallo's, Debbie Rivera, testified that she had heard a momentary pause in the volley of 41 shots, supporting the prosecution's claim that the police had had time to see that Diallo was unarmed and had briefly stopped shooting.

An embarrassing moment for the defense came when Wheeler Avenue resident Schrrie Elliott testified that she had seen the shooting from across the street. (She later told television interviewers she had heard one of the cops shout "Gun!" If true, this supported the officers' position that they thought the victim had been armed.) On the witness stand, however, she said she couldn't be sure who had shoutedit could have been Diallo. Cross-examined by prosecutor Donald Levin, she said Diallo had had his back to the officers as they approached, and she hadn't heard anyone yell "stop" or "freeze" or "show your hands." Someone, she couldn't be sure who, yelled, "Gun!" and the firing started. The next day, shown her TV interviews where she described one of the officers yelling "Gun!" she admitted her story had changed. The jury was not present for this disclosure, having previously been excused. In the meantime, an investigation disclosed that she had a rap sheet that included an arrest and conviction for the possession and sale of drugs. The next time she was put on the witness stand, the defense asked the judge to declare her a hostile witness, then proceeded to cross-examined her. At this time she changed her story yet again, saying one of the officers had, indeed, shouted "Gun!"

"Gun! He's Got a Gun!"

The defense put each of the officers on the witness stand. Sean Carroll testified about the unmarked police car's cruise down Wheeler Avenue. He related that he had seen a man who stepped back into the vestibule as if he didn't want to be seen. He told how he and McMellon approached, asking for a word with the man and telling Diallo to "Show me your hands." Then, said Carroll, Diallo "started removing a black object from his right side" and "it appeared he had pulled a weapon on my partner." Carroll said he shouted, "Gun! He's got a gun!" And when he saw McMellon fall backward off the steps, he thought Diallo was shooting.

McMellon testified, "All I knew at that moment was that he was pointing a weapon in my direction and Sean and I were going to die."

Sobbing as he testified, Carroll said that after the shooting he looked at what was in Diallo's hand, "And I seen it was just a wallet." He held Diallo's hand, rubbed his face, and said, "Don't die, keep breathing. Please don't die."

A window of the stuffy courtroom was partly open as officers Boss and Murphy testified. Four floors below, some 100 protestors chanted, "No justice, no peace." The judge ordered the window closed as the officers backed up their partners' story that Diallo had had a gun and that they had feared for their lives. The defense cited state law that permits killing in self-defense by police or anyone else. Murphy, who fired the fewest number of shotsfoursaid that he was sure he would find a gun when the smoke cleared. "Over and over," he testified, "I said, I can't believe there's no gun."

Textbook Policing

The last defense witness, Dr. James Fyfe, an expert in police training, testified that the officers had practiced textbook policing that night. The prosecution decided not to cross-examine him and to not put on a rebuttal case. Both sides rested.

After his four-hour charge and before deliberations began, Judge Teresi dismissed one juror for discussing the case out of court. The panel was now one white and four black women, and seven white men. After deliberating for three days, the jury decided the policemen had reasonably thought Diallo was armed and had fired in self-defense. It found them not guilty of second-degree murder.

Judge Teresi's charge had made it clear the jury could also consider convicting the defendants on several lower charges, such as manslaughter. The jury deliberated on the alternate charge but decided that the evidence did not support a guilty verdict on any criminal charges. Following the verdict, Diallo's family announced it would file a wrongful-death civil suit against the four officers and the city of New York.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Donner, Frank. Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1990.

Grossman, Lieutenant Colonel Dave. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1996.

Lowry, Richard. "Protest Too Much." National Review (April 19, 1999): 10.

Morales, Frank. "The Militarization of the Police." CovertAction Quarterly (Spring-Summer 1999): 15.

Ruchelman, Leonard. Who Rules the Police? New York: New York University Press, 1973.