Mort de Amadou Diallo à New York City

Actualité courante
Mort de Amadou Diallo à New York City

Robert D. McFadden
Lawyer Says 4 Officers Accused of Second-Degree Murder

New York Times — March 26, 1999

A Bronx grand jury has returned indictments against four white street crime officers in the killing of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant cut down last month in a fusillade of 41 shots at his Bronx apartment building, a lawyer and a law enforcement official said Thursday night.

The Bronx District Attorney’s office, which has supervised the grand jury for six weeks, made no announcement and refused to answer questions about the report. But a lawyer with knowledge of the case and a law enforcement official, both speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the indictments had been voted and were sealed.

The lawyer said that all four officers had been charged with second-degree murder. The law enforcement official did not specify the charges.

The officers, who were said by their lawyers to have believed that the 22-year-old victim had a gun and was about to use it, never testified before the grand jury, which thus apparently heard no account that might have justified the shooting and averted the indictments.

The case, which unleashed a storm of protest against the police and the Giuliani administration’s aggressive policing policies and generated hundreds of arrests and a series of Federal, state and city investigations, has dominated the news and the political dialogue of New York for seven weeks.

The four officers

  • Sean Carroll, 35
  • Edward McMellon, 26
  • Kenneth Boss, 27
  • Richard Murphy, 26

have not spoken publicly about what happened on the night of Feb. 4 outside Diallo’s apartment at 1157 Wheeler Avenue in the Soundview section of the Bronx.

A lawyer who represented all the officers early in the case has said that the four approached Diallo outside his vestibule because they thought he resembled the sketch of a rapist they were seeking, that he made a gesture that they saw as threatening, and that they opened fire because they thought he was reaching for a gun.

After the shooting – in which 19 bullets hit Diallo– he was found to be unarmed, in possession only of a wallet and a pager. Later, it was learned that the dead man, an immigrant from the West African nation of Guinea, had no police record and had been working as a peddler in Manhattan.

While the precise charges against the officers could not be confirmed, legal experts noted that the grand jury had four possible indictment choices, ranging from second-degree murder, the most serious, to manslaughter in the first and second degrees, to criminally negligent homicide.

Second-degree murder, the intentional killing of a person or a killing resulting from depraved indifference to life, is punishable by 25 years to life in prison. The lesser manslaughter or negligent homicide charges devolve on intent or recklessness, and carry lesser penalties.

Legal experts noted that, in the absence of testimony by the officers , the grand jury had no choice but to return an indictment.

In recent days, lawyers for the officers, citing the charged political atmosphere enveloping the case, have said that they regarded indictments as virtually certain, and advised their clients to reject an offer by the Bronx District Attorney to testify.

« They apparently decided it would be better to assert their defense at a trial, rather than expose themselves in the grand jury, » one legal expert said. « Testifying before the grand jury would not get them anywhere. If you kill somebody and don’t assert justification before the grand jury– saying you believe your life was in jeopardy – an indictment is really automatic. »

The lawyers for the four officers declined substantive comment last night.

« I can’t confirm it, nobody has contacted us, » said Marvyn M. Kornberg, who represents Officer Carroll. « I’ve said all along that there’s no doubt in my mind that the Bronx District Attorney, being a political animal, is going to indict the defendants. And there’s no doubt in my mind that when the case finally goes to trial that my client will be exonerated. »

Steven Brounstein, representing Officer Boss; Stuart London, representing Officer McMellon, and James J. Culleton, representing Officer Murphy, all said they had not been notified of any indictments and had nothing to add.

Kadiadou Diallo, Amadou Diallo’s mother, sighed and said over the phone from Conakry, Guinea, « Oh, that’s very good, » when told of reports that the officers had been charged. Mrs. Diallo, who is coming to New York next week for the unsealing of the grand jury indictments, added: « I feel that it should have been earlier, but I am happy and I am grateful to all of you that were fighting and protesting. We begin to have some achievements. »

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has orchestrated the widening protests over the case, said: « We do not know whether the reports of an indictment are true or not. Therefore we will continue our daily acts of civil disobedience. We will continue until the police are officially charged. »

He added that, if the officers are charged, a new phase of protest, pressing for reforms like city residency requirements for officers, would begin.

In the absence of grand jury testimony or public statements by the four officers, little is known about what happened on the night of the killing.

Diallo, described by relatives and friends as a Muslim who sold videotapes, scarves and other items from a sidewalk stand on 14th Street in Manhattan, had come home late from work that night, as usual, and had gone out for something to eat, one of his roommates said.

According to an early account by Stephen C. Worth, a Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association lawyer who represented the four early in the case, the officers, all members of the Street Crime Unit, assigned to roam the city in search of crimes in progress and suspects in rape, robbery and weapons cases, had been in an unmarked car, driving on Wheeler Avenue, when they spotted Diallo.

It was 12:35 A.M. The officers thought he was acting in some suspicious way, perhaps fumbling for keys, and that he resembled the sketch of a man wanted for rape. The officers got out and approached him, identifying themselves as police officers as they did so, the lawyer said.

Each of the officers was carrying a 16-shot rapid-firing 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol, and three had been involved in previous shootings in the line of duty. Although on the force only five to seven years, the four had made a total of 279 felony arrests.

It was unclear from the lawyer’s account at what point in the confrontation the officers drew their weapons. They asked Diallo to do something, the lawyer said, though he did not say what it was. There may have been a language problem. Friends of Diallo said he spoke English, but slowly and with a stutter. In any case, Diallo did not comply, the lawyer said.

Instead, he moved his arms and hands in a way that at least one officer interpreted as going for a gun. One civilian witness who said she saw part of what happened has said she heard someone shout « Gun! » before the shooting started, according to two lawyers familiar with the case. It was unclear if this witness testified before the grand jury.

The lawyer said the officers began shooting because they believed Diallo had a gun and was about to shoot them. It is unknown which officer fired first, or if more than one opened fire simultaneously. Diallo was hit 19 times in the chest, abdomen, back, arms and legs, and died of ruptures of the aorta, spinal cord, lungs, liver, spleen, kidney and intestines.

There was no explanation of why the officers fired 41 times. Ballistics showed that two emptied their weapons, while the others fired fewer times. Some law enforcement officials said that it was possible that only one or two of the officers perceived a danger, and that the others opened fire simply because their comrades had begun firing – a phenomenon known in law enforcement circles as contagious shooting.

For more than seven weeks, the Diallo case has wracked the city and the Giuliani administration with controversy, generating Federal, state and local investigations, a rising tide of protests and intense political pressure on Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir

Besides the criminal investigation by the Bronx District Attorney, the case has produced inquiries into police conduct by the State Attorney General, Eliot L. Spitzer, the United States Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York and the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Yesterday, Attorney General Janet Reno, while defending police officers who are confronted with life-or-death split-second decisions and not responding specifically to the Diallo case, said the Justice Department would pursue any allegations of police brutality. Earlier in the week, she had met privately with civil rights leaders who complained about the Diallo case and what they called racism in the criminal justice system.

Almost from the start, the shooting of an unarmed black man by four white police officers seemed to crystalize the apprehensions of minority groups over the aggressive police policies of the Giuliani administration in general, and the Street Crimes Unit in particular.

The horrendous images of 41 shots fired at a man who had no police record and who was described by friends and relatives as a devout Muslim promptly drew comparisons to the cases of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant tortured in a Brooklyn station house in 1997, and Anthony Baez, who died in the Bronx after a struggle with Officer Francis X. Livoti in 1994.

The protests, which began almost immediately outside Diallo’s home, were small and sporadic at first, quiet prayer vigils or subdued marches involving only a few dozen supporters of the Diallo family, most of them organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

But beginning on Mar. 9, his campaign of civil disobedience became a daily ritual outside Police Headquarters in lower Manhattan, with growing numbers of marchers and arrests. Scores handcuffed and taken away for disorderly conduct grew into the hundreds, and came to include many prominent black and Hispanic leaders, current and former public officials, entertainers and various civic, religious and labor leaders.

By late yesterday, the police said, more than 820 people had been peaceably arrested in 13 days of protest. Among other things, the protesters had expressed outrage that the officers involved had not been either questioned or arrested.

But the officers, all assigned to desk duty while the grand jury considered the case, were not bail risks and were deliberately not questioned because prosecutors feared that doing so might jeopardize any case against them. The officers, like any citizens, have a right against self-incrimination, and prosecutors noted that any statements they made under compulsion would become inadmissible in court.

In response to the protests, Mayor Giuliani consistently defend the police, saying that any criticism of the officers involved in the Diallo shooting had to be balanced against what he called a record of restraint by the city police, which he called one of the best in the country in recent years.

But as the protests and criticism of Giuliani and the police continued to grow, the apparently exasperated Mayor began referring to the daily repetition of the civil disobedience in dismissive terms, as « publicity stunts, » and « silly, » and he referred to the various investigations into police misconduct as « piling on. »

On Mar. 21, however, Gov. George E. Pataki joined in the criticism of the Mayor, with whom he has had a feud for years. The Governor called the shooting of Diallo « Horrific » and suggested that the Giuliani administration was not « responding appropriately » over the matter.

In response, the Mayor, who had never developed any rapport with the city’s black elected leaders and was at odds with many black community leaders, began to change his approach. He continued to praise the police, but avoided the caustic tone he had often used, acknowledging that there was « a feeling in the minority community that police officers are unfair to them, » and that « there is a reality to that feeling. »

The growing political impact of the case also emerged in calls for the resignation of Commissioner Safir, who made two trips to California, including one to the Academy Awards ceremonies, during the rising tide of protests. The Public Advocate, Mark Green, joined the calls for Safir’s ouster last week.

At the same time, the Police Department’s Street Crimes Unit has come under growing scrutiny and criticism. The unit, whose members are assigned to high crime areas, is composed of officers who roam the city in plain clothes, searching for suspects and people with guns.

The unit is the subject of a Federal civil rights investigation into whether its officers stop and search people without probable cause in their quest to make gun arrests, and black and Hispanic leaders in New York have charged that the unit routinely targets minorities.