webGuinée/Actualité courante/Mort de Amadou Diallo à New York City/Science Seen Playing Role
Mort de Amadou Diallo à New York City
Science Seen Playing Role in Diallo Case
New York Times — April 2, 1999
With the indictments barely unsealed against four police officers in the Amadou Diallo shooting, a battle is already taking shape over physical evidence in the case, as lawyers and experts seek to buttress their own versions of what happened based on entrance wounds, bullet trajectories and other forensic details.
Since there were apparently no eyewitnesses who saw the whole incident except for the officers, such evidence – and the often fuzzy or conflicting interpretations it can yield – could be a crucial element when the officers, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, Richard Murphy and Kenneth Boss, are tried on murder charges.
Both sides hope to use forensic evidence to answer questions that have loomed since Feb. 4, when Diallo was killed in a fusillade of 41 bullets fired into the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building.
Where was he when the four plainclothes officers began shooting? How quickly did he fall? How long did it take for the officers to fire so many times? Is there anything at the crime scene to explain why they unleashed such firepower at an unarmed man?
The potential significance of the forensic evidence is apparent in the efforts being expended by all sides to collect it:
- The Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau has done an extensive re-enactment of the shooting at the department’s firing range on Rodman’s Neck.
- The FBI dispatched a team of ballistic experts from Washington who spent days making measurements of the crime scene and traced bullet trajectories with lasers.
- Defense lawyers have employed their own crime-scene specialists who may be called to rebut whatever theories the prosecution’s experts propose.
- The Diallo family has employed a pathologist whose autopsy has led to charges by their lawyers that the West African immigrant was shot repeatedly, even after he had collapsed, paralyzed, from his initial wounds.
« The forensic evidence is critical to the case because it is the forensic evidence that offers the best challenge to the credibility of the four police officers, » said Peter Neufeld, a lawyer for the Diallo family, which is planning to bring a civil suit in the case.
« You can question their story based on common sense and logic and what passers-by might have seen or heard. But none of that can be as devastating an impeachment as objective, irrefutable scientific evidence. »
Not surprisingly, the officers’ lawyers embrace the same irrefutable science to argue an opposite position.
« I am not afraid of the forensic evidence, » said Stephen Worth, the lawyer for Officer McMellon, one of the four accused of second-degree murder. « What the forensic evidence will not show is that these officers fired repeatedly into a prone body. Quite the contrary, I expect it to show the opposite, that, namely, the vast majority of the shots, if not all of the shots, were fired at a standing person. »
Of course, it is far from certain that a verdict in the case will hinge on forensic evidence. Assuming the officers testify, their credibility in asserting that they feared for their lives in the mistaken belief that Diallo was armed could also be a decisive factor.
But it seems likely that a dizzying parade of expert witnesses will take the stand at the trial to debate the trigonometric calculation of bullet trajectories, and more importantly, to contradict one another.
« Ideally, the physical evidence should support one conclusion, » said Peter R. De Forest, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. « But what often happens is that one side or the other pays someone to dispute it and the science gets polluted. »
The Bronx District Attorney’s office has declined to comment on details of the evidence or how it might be used in the trial. But the Diallo family lawyers have shown no such reticence, virtually constructing a criminal case against the officers while preparing the civil suit.
One of the central disputes will likely focus on the officers’ assertion that Diallo continued to stand upright, even after he had been hit by many of the 19 bullets that struck him. There are apparently no eyewitnesses to confirm or rebut that account, although several of Diallo’s neighbors on Wheeler Avenue have said they saw a portion of the incident and heard the shooting.
But the Diallo family’s lawyers dismissed the officers’ version as « absurd, » pointing to an autopsy by their pathologist, Dr. Cyril H. Wecht of Pennsylvania, that suggests that Diallo was knocked down and paralyzed quite early in the barrage.
« Amadou Diallo was already on the ground with his spinal cord severed, » said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a family adviser, « so the alibi they have put on the court record will devastate the defense. »
The official autopsy by the city Medical Examiner’s office does not discuss the sequence of shots, the position of Diallo’s body when he was hit or whether he was paralyzed at any point, people who have reviewed the report have said.
The autopsy report does indicate that two shots, one from the front and one from the back, perforated Diallo’s spine at separate points. Those perforations are the primary basis for the family’s conclusion that he was paralyzed.
Dr. Wecht’s analysis that those shots came early in the sequence is based, in part, on the amount of blood from those wounds that filled his chest cavity.
But Marvyn Kornberg, who represents Officer Carroll, said the officers’ semiautomatic weapons fired so fast that it is impossible to determine with any precision when the shots to the chest were fired.
« You are talking about a matter of eight seconds, » he said. « You can’t tell which is first and which is second. »
A second set of bullets that struck Diallo’s right leg and foot also figure to be a source of debate.
The city’s autopsy indicates that one shot struck Diallo just above the heel and traveled up the calf before lodging behind the knee, people who reviewed the report have said.
The Diallo family’s lawyers believe this bullet, as well as a second bullet that the autopsy says hit Diallo’s middle toe « adjacent to the front of the nail, » indicate that Diallo was shot after he had fallen.
Defense lawyers dispute that conclusion and argue that the incident took so little time that the officers most likely had no chance to gauge the impact of their initial shots as they fired subsequent rounds.
There could also be a dispute over just how much time elapsed as the 41 shots were fired, especially since witnesses have said they heard a pause in the firing, apparently caused when Officer McMellon fell down while firing.
The officers’ attorneys have said that that fall led his partners to believe that Officer McMellon had been shot.
Defenders of the officers have also speculated that other factors, the possible ricochet of bullets or the reflection of muzzle blasts in the window of the Diallo’s vestibule, might have led the officers to mistakenly believe that they were being fired on.
Neufeld has called the ricochet theory ludicrous.
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