The People's Verdict: Guilty as Charged
The verdict of the criminal-justice system is that police officers who shot an unarmed youth to death in his own home did nothing wrong. The verdict of the people is different -- thousands of us, in New York and all over this country, in the streets, on whatever media will listen, and in the court of public opinion say the officers who shot Amadou Diallo are guilty of murder.The verdict of the criminal-justice system sends a message that communities of color are free-fire zones, that our youth of color are suspects, and that we have no rights that a police officer is bound to respect. The people's verdict sends a different message: that whatever perversion of justice can find murderers not guilty if they are police officers and white, and their victim is black, the people will carry forward the struggle until we have changed the conditions that allow that to happen.What was it that allowed this verdict to happen? The answer is that all the parts of a corrupt and racist criminal-justice system came together to protect its own. The change of venue, the inadequate prosecution, the judge's rulings, and a jury selected from a predominantly white jurisdiction all came together to pervert and manipulate the fair-trial process. Every defendant is supposed to be entitled to the presumption of innocence, to the benefit of the doubt -- but these defendants received the benefit not of doubt, but of white privilege, and the protection of the powerful.When the venue was changed to Albany, it was clear that the system would go to any length, including violating its own rules, to obtain an acquittal. The people of the Bronx, either in a jury trial or through their elected, black, woman judge, would never have acquitted these police officers -- no matter how weak the prosecution -- because they are familiar with the context in which this shooting took place. A room full of New Yorkers spontaneously all laughed out loud when they heard the officers claim that they approached Amadou Diallo saying. "Sir, may we have a word with you?"But even in Albany, the system had to go to great lengths to ensure that the jury did not come to the obvious conclusion. The prosecution and the judge both had to conduct a trial in such a way that the officers were human -- but Amadou Diallo was just a shady robber or rapist slinking around in a dimly lit doorway. The defense depended on whether the officers' suspicions were "reasonable" -- an argument that depends completely on context. But the judge did not allow the context that would show how totally, insanely unreasonable was the officers' fantasy that they were about to be killed by a smallish, quiet person in his own doorway, not making a single aggressive move, on a quiet street in an ordinary family neighborhood, looking out at and then trying to protect himself from four armed men acting like they were about to kill him -- which in fact, they did.Justice Joseph Teresi conducted a trial to produce the outcome it produced -- from making rulings limiting the scope of what could be introduced as evidence, to moving the trial at a pace that allowed no time for this jury to become familiar with the context in which the shooting took place, to making charges and offering instructions that did not make any distinction between the officers' fantasies and reality. No other defendants could have argued a self-defense justification based on fantasy alone, unsupported by any reality whatsoever, and been found to have been reasonable. Whether they actually believed what they said they believed is not a matter that anyone can decide -- it is not possible to go inside another person's head. If their fantasy alone was the basis for their defense, then the judge should have made them argue they were not guilty by reason of insanity. Justification by the standards of a reasonable person requires some support from external reality.Judge Teresi, in a series of biased rulings, allowed context favorable to the officers but not context favorable to the prosecution. He allowed testimony that the officers faced danger, that they were afraid because they knew officers had been killed, that they were searching for a rapist. He didn't allow, and the prosecution made little attempt to offer, testimony that they and the Street Crimes Unit routinely engaged in racial profiling; that three of them had shot before; that they had harassed innocent youth on the very same night that they murdered Amadou Diallo.Who could have spoken for Amadou? To say, "I just went out for some air, or a cigarette, or to take out the garbage, and these four white men are driving by slowly, staring at me, I better go back inside, I turn to go inside, I look from the steps to make sure they are gone, they stop, back up, they are getting out of their car, they are coming toward me I can see they have guns, they are aiming at me. I better get back in my house quick, my keys are in my wallet, the wallet is in my pocket, they are coming closer, shouting something at me, a couple of them are shouting at the same time, I can't understand what they are saying, but it's clear they are trying to rob me, I have to get back in my house, I am trying to get my keys, my hands are shaking and I can't get my wallet out with my keys in it, they are trying to kill me and rob me, I have to get into the house, they are shooting at me, they are hitting me. I don't want to die."Nobody spoke for Amadou. Amadou was dead. But his friends and roommates could have spoken, to say what he was probably doing and thinking based on their knowledge of his character and habits; or his parents; or other young men who had been approached in the same way by the Street Crime Unit in plain clothes could have said what fears and perceptions one is likely to experience; or other New Yorkers could have testified to the likelihood, based on multiple experiences, that the officers said "Excuse me, sir ..."No one spoke but the shooters, and they said what they wanted to say -- uninterrupted by a reality check from the prosecution -- that Amadou was irrational, not them, that they spoke clearly and politely, that they could see enough to tell that he looked like a rapist from their car, but not enough to distinguish a wallet from a gun at less than 10 feet.And a system of power that is set up to incarcerate our children by the thousands with inadequate public defenders that force them to plea bargain for 10 or 11 years of their lives for carrying a weapon that they didn't use, did what it is set up to do and said Amadou deserved to die because these cops had a fantasy that he was a dangerous, black, killer, rapist robber.The people's verdict is guilty of murder as charged.Vickie Smith is a spokeswoman for the Albany, New York's Capital Region Justice for Diallo Committee.