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Friday, Mar. 31, 2000

Controversy continues to swirl around New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for his unswerving loyalty toward the N.Y.P.D. in its use of deadly force. Most recently, the mayor provoked outrage by releasing sealed juvenile arrest records of Patrick Dorismond, a 26-year old Haitian-American who died of gunshot wounds in the course of a botched "buy and bust" sting operation earlier this month. The Dorismond shooting and the mayor's seeming indifference intensified the black community's sense of alienation and isolation. It took place only days after a jury acquitted the four police officers who had fired 41 bullets at Amadou Diallo, another unarmed black immigrant who fell to his death in the vestibule of his home. The controversy results in no small part from the fact that these deaths occurred in the ordinary course of police business. Supporters of the police insist that the officers acted reasonably in making difficult judgment calls under terrifying circumstances. Opponents counter that only minorities appear to risk death in what should be routine encounters with a (hostile) police force. As the Diallo case taught, each side has a heartfelt story to tell, and because that is true, the controversy promises not to die down any time soon.

As the United States Department of Justice deliberates on whether to initiate a federal prosecution against Diallo's shooters, it might take into account the fact that the trial in Albany riveted the nation's attention. Newspapers covered every day of testimony in detail, and commentators regularly weighed in at points all along the political spectrum. The announcement of the verdict provoked even more coverage, commentary and controversy. It was clear from the beginning that something about this case had a larger-than-life significance that merited an ongoing public discussion. Yet it is not immediately apparent why this should be so.

On the surface, there was nothing extraordinary about either the defendants (four white police officers) or their victim (a West African immigrant). In contrast to the O.J. Simpson prosecution the last trial to generate this sort of sustained public dialogue none of the parties was rich or famous. Diallo lived and the four police officers worked in a poor section of the Bronx, many miles from the glamour of the mansions in Brentwood. The particular policemen also had no record of the sort of virulent racism exhibited by Los Angeles Detective Mark Fuhrman. The trial lasted less than a month, a far cry from the year-long odyssey to O.J. Simpson's acquittal. Amadou Diallo the victim seemed in many respects the antithesis of O.J. Simpson the defendant.

Yet Diallo's unadorned story was compelling precisely because its violence appeared to blend so seamlessly with the everyday. The police were engaged in their usual practice of stopping numerous black men who turned out to have been innocent of any wrongdoing (Diallo was the third such stop that evening). The officers' encounter with Diallo went wrong in a way that fails to distinguish that night from any other night, and therefore fails to offer comfort to those who fear that they or their loved ones will be the next victims of "reasonable" deadly force by the police. That the officers' initial approach of Diallo occurred in such ordinary circumstances only highlights the magnitude of the moment when a man lost his life and that loss went unavenged.

The public did not have a clear sense of who Amadou Diallo was. In a sad irony, the life of Diallo will be remembered best for how it ended. And the narrative of his death is spare. Four white police officers, one unarmed black immigrant in his vestibule, 41 bullets, a harmless wallet in the dying man's hand. His death easily became a Rorschach blot onto which people could project their own worst fears. For some, he represented the young and struggling black man in America, earning an honest living and trying to make a better life for himself. His death meant the death of hope and the futility of struggle for those who identified with him.

For those who identified with the police, emotions were similarly raw. Recall police marching to show solidarity with the four defendants. To them, the fact that the four officers became defendants in a criminal trial demonstrated the isolation of those whose job it is to protect and serve, a job that is dangerous and that claims the lives of many officers every year. The prosecution appeared to speak for a hostile public, those unwilling to give police the benefit of the doubt. For the four defendants, the support of their fellow officers was, in part, a recognition that there but for the grace of God went they, objects of suspicion and derision, scapegoats, their pain unacknowledged, their sacrifices unappreciated. The nondescript quality of the officers made their personas as easy for strangers to inhabit as that of the young man they killed.

Just as the shooting lent itself to conflicting interpretations, the acquittal also generated competing conclusions. A jury's verdict in a criminal case ordinarily provides closure by rendering a legally binding judgment for or against the defendants' guilt. In this case, the acquittal may have ended the officers' ordeal, but it compounded the sorrow and the despair of those who saw innocent black life taken with impunity. It seemed that four white cops had gotten away with murder. Supporters of the verdict dispensed race-neutral explanations. Perhaps the power of "beyond a reasonable doubt." Maybe the jury's recognition that mistakes are made. Or perhaps compassion for flawed human judgment. More than a year after Diallo's tragic death, people continue to disagree over its meaning and its broader implications. In its simplicity and its concurrent ambiguity, the Diallo story, from the shooting to the acquittal, is the tale of race and criminal justice in this country.

Professor Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is a Professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark.

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