Stephen Leon

A Death Unpunished

The facts of the case seem reasonably straightforward: On Feb. 4, 1999, four New York City police officers were cruising a Bronx neighborhood on assignment with the NYPD's special Street Crime Unit. Officers Kenneth Boss, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon and Richard Murphy, all dressed in plain clothes, got out of their car and approached 22-year-old Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant with no criminal record.When the brief encounter was over, Diallo lay dead in the vestibule of his apartment building, having been struck by 19 of the 41 bullets the police fired in his direction. Their explanation for the deadly barrage centered on their claims that Diallo resembled a neighborhood rape suspect and that they thought he had pulled a gun. The only item found in the dead man's hand was his wallet.The killing sparked outrage in New York City and beyond, and on March 31, 1999, the four officers were indicted on charges of second-degree murder and first-degree reckless endangerment. On Dec. 16, the trial venue was changed to Albany -- a move heavily criticized as being unfair to the prosecution, who would have benefited from a jury familiar with the history of police-community relations in the Bronx.Last Friday, Feb. 26, the racially mixed jury (four blacks, eight whites) returned "not guilty" verdicts on all charges against all four officers, including lesser charges the court had agreed to consider. While some have applauded the verdict, characterizing the killing as not a crime but a "tragic mistake," others have responded with anger, frustration, protest, charges of incompetent prosecution and judicial bias, and calls for a federal civil-rights prosecution."Judge [Joseph C.] Teresi allowed context favorable to the officers but not context favorable to the prosecution," claims Vickie Smith, co-chair of Albany's Justice for Diallo Committee. "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, three of them had shot before, they had harassed innocent youth on the very same night that they murdered Amadou Diallo."One New York activist sees a silver lining to the cloud of helplessness the Diallo verdict left hanging on African-American communities in the Bronx and elsewhere."I was surprised that they were totally exonerated," says Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law and Justice. "I think they should have been held accountable for some part of what they had done." But Green disagrees with those who say the verdict means it's now "open season" on people of color -- because, she says, it's already been that way for a long time.Instead, Green feels the high profile of the case finally has average citizens questioning police procedures in high-crime neighborhoods. In fact, she says, she has received an unusually large number of calls from people who are fed up with racial profiling and the aggressive tactics of special crime units that target minority neighborhoods. "I'm feeling optimistic that we're going to make some difference," she says. "We haven't seen this kid of activity on criminal justice in a long time."

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