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Tough Call

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Early in the afternoon of Feb. 23, as Judge Joseph Teresi concluded his instructions, juror Helen Harder, 71, thought she knew how deliberations would go in the trial of the four white New York City policemen who had shot to death an unarmed black street peddler one year before. She assumed that she and her fellow jurors would find the defendants guilty of something—though definitely not murder, with which they were charged. The defendants had, after all, fired 41 shots at 23-year-old Amadou Diallo, a native of West Africa, killing him almost instantly as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building just after midnight on Feb. 4, 1999.

But as Harder and the 11 other jurors, including four black women, considered the case for 21 hours, they largely accepted the policemen’s version of events: that the officers—one of whom wept on the witness stand—had believed that Diallo, whose wallet they mistook for a gun, was about to start shooting. “I think we were all surprised at the outcome,” says Harder, a retired state clerk, who adds that the law left them no choice but to acquit the four officers of all charges. “I really thought we would find for Diallo.”

In that she was not alone, as protests after the trial quickly indicated. Two days after the verdict, some 1,000 demonstrators marched to the United Nations to voice their outrage, and there were additional protests in Atlanta and San Francisco. Even when the trial had been moved 150 miles north of New York City to Albany, after the defense argued that an impartial jury could not be found in The Bronx, there had been confidence that the accused would face some sort of judgment. Diallo’s mother, Kadiatou, 40, and his father, Saikou, 57, who are divorced, came from West Africa with that expectation, and neither accepted the not-guilty verdicts as the final word in the case. “I want justice for my son,” says Saikou. “If we don’t [get it], it will tell people that the police can do anything they want without punishment.”

Harder and at least some other jurors shared his frustration. “There is some responsibility on the officers,” she says. “Those four men owe something to [the Diallos]. I don’t know what it would be, but they are not completely blameless.” Harder, for one, questions whether the officers were properly trained. (As for the number of shots fired, the judge instructed the jury that if the officers had good reason to feel threatened, they were justified in using deadly force.)

Remarkably, though the racial implications of the case had received considerable attention outside the courtroom, there was no racial conflict during deliberations, and the question of whether the victim’s race had any effect on the decision to shoot by the four white officers—Sean Carroll, 37; Kenneth Boss, 28; Edward McMellon, 27; and Richard Murphy, 27—never came up.

Kadiatou Diallo, who acts as an agent for two Australian mining companies back home in Guinea, attended the trial each day. The only sessions she missed, because they were too difficult to bear, dealt with the autopsy evidence. “You can see it in her face, in the way she sits, in the way she moves,” says Anthony Gair, an attorney she has retained for a wrongful-death suit against New York City. “This has really worn her down.” In addition to the civil suit, the U.S. attorney with jurisdiction over The Bronx is expected to decide soon whether a federal civil rights case should be brought against the four officers, who also face a police department investigation. The four have said nothing outside the courtroom since the verdict, but Carroll’s lawyer John Patten called the affair a “sad case. It was a tragedy visited on five men.”

Relieved to have the trial behind them, the Albany jurors have set about the task of getting their lives back to normal. Not surprisingly, given the bond that formed among them, their most meaningful support came from one another. “We are the only twelve that understand what happened in that room,” says one juror, who asked not to be identified. “As much as our families support us, we are the only twelve that really know what this feels like.”

Bill Hewitt

Mark McGuire and Bob Meadows in Albany and Marilyn Anderson and Lisa K. Greissinger in New York City