At Diallo Trial, a Mother's Burdensome Vigil

A web-only special report from TIME columnist Jack White.

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I was seated 12 feet from Kadiatou Diallo in the courtroom in Albany last week, about as far away as the four white policemen were from her son Amadou when they shot him down as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building, armed with nothing but his wallet. I watched her jaw tighten when defense lawyer Stephen Worth glared at the Rev. Al Sharpton and declared that but for the "furor created by people who have their own agenda," the cops who fired 41 9mm bullets at her son, piercing his body 19 times, would not be on trial for murder. She remained composed when another defense lawyer, Bennett Epstein, implied that the killing had been her son's fault because he somehow led four noble cops "into the no-man's land that is every police officer's nightmare." The next day, when Amadou's photo ID was flashed on a courtroom screen, she broke down and cried.

Kadiatou's lawyer, Anthony Gair, says her "strength is remarkable." She may need every ounce of it to get through the trial, as every horrifying detail about her son's death is dredged up and his name is dragged, ever so delicately, through the mud by the defense. As it was in Simi Valley, Calif., where a jury with no black members acquitted the cops accused in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, the defense strategy in Albany is plain: say the cops were justified, and blame the victim. Talk about the fear that enveloped the four members of the Úlite street-crimes unit, each armed with a Glock semiautomatic pistol loaded with 16 bullets, as they confronted Diallo, 22, a street vendor who stood all of 5-foot-6 and weighed 150 lbs. And about his supposed resemblance to a sexual predator suspected of raping more than 50 women. And the fact that Diallo, who hailed from the African nation of Guinea, lied on his application for political asylum, falsely claiming he was fleeing persecution in Mauritania. Then if all else fails, lash out at Sharpton and the busload of semi-professional protesters he imports from New York City each day to chant "No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!" in the park across the street from the courthouse. Harp on everything except this: why in New York City and other cities across America, some white cops look at every young black man as a suspect and a threat.

According to lead prosecutor Eric Warner, the evidence will show that the four cops never called out a warning to Diallo, such as "Stop! Police!" or "Don't move!" before they opened fire. The cops, said Warner, kept firing at Diallo even after he was down. "A human being should have been able to stand in the vestibule of his own home and not be shot to death," said Warner, "especially when those doing the shooting are police officers sworn to protect innocent people."

The trial was moved upstate to Albany after an appellate court ruled that extensive press coverage and anti-police demonstrations had tainted the pool of potential jurors in the Bronx. Diallo's supporters feared that in the new venue of Albany County, which is 89 percent white, the defense would play the race card by attacking Sharpton and his band. The cops' backers feared that Sharpton would stir up the blacks in Albany. But blacks in Albany did not need Sharpton to stir them up, because their city has its own ugly history of tension between blacks and cops. In 1984 Albany police shot and killed Jesse Davis, a deranged mental patient, after he supposedly attacked them with a knife and a carving fork. A grand jury ruled that the shooting was justified. Nine years later, Lewis Oliver, a lawyer who had filed a wrongful-death suit on behalf of Davis' relatives, discovered a photograph taken by a police officer moments after Davis was shot. It showed him clutching only a set of keys and a toy car. Rather than allow the case to go to trial, the city settled the lawsuit for $500,000. Last year brutality charges against two Albany cops accused of beating college basketball star Jermaine Henderson in a police garage were dismissed after the city paid Henderson $60,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit.

Festering memories of those incidents — along with Sharpton's protests and the fact that the proceedings are being broadcast nationally on Court TV — have created a volatile atmosphere that puts a heavy burden on the judge, Joseph Teresi, to conduct the trial in a way both sides perceive as fair. So far, he has been up to it. When defense lawyers attempted to block prospective jurors who were black, Teresi stopped them cold and seated a panel that has four black members out of 12, twice as many as veteran criminal attorneys say they have ever seen in any Albany trial. As a local lawyer puts it, "Teresi won't be another Lance Ito." For the sake of the police, the people of the Bronx and Kadiatou Diallo, he'd better not be. If this trial slides into chaos, there will be no justice and no peace.