A Murder Case Puts Police Methods on Trial

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Amadou Diallo was killed by four New York City police officers in February of 1999 as he entered the vestibule of his apartment building and reached for his wallet. And as jury selection begins in the murder trial against those four police officers, the cause of death is not up for debate; instead, both the defense and the prosecution will focus on the officers' intent when they pulled their weapons. There's some damning evidence working against the police: Diallo's body was riddled with 19 bullets of the 41 fired in total. And although the officers say they stopped firing well before Diallo fell to the ground, a pathologist hired by the prosecution found a bullet that had traveled from the sole of Diallo's foot up through his leg — a difficult shot to make when a victim is standing. The officers, who have all pleaded innocent to the murder charge, claim the 22-year-old Guinean immigrant matched the description of a serial rapist and appeared to be pulling a gun. In retrospect, both perceptions were faulty; Diallo was unarmed.

The police, defense lawyers will claim, thought they were about to be shot, and took the only course of action available to them within the split-second time frame. With this in mind, prosecutors will scrutinize prospective jurors for signs of sympathy with the police — or even for a general lack of skepticism toward law enforcement methodology. "This case will be very carefully watched," says TIME columnist Jack White. "What's really on trial here is this: What is the duty of police officers in minority neighborhoods? To protect the population or to police them?"

New York's police department has been under increased scrutiny in the past several years; high-profile cases of police brutality have brought unwelcome attention to Mayor Rudy Giuliani's zealous law-and-order practices. The rising tensions in New York between minorities and police officers spurred a judge to relocate the trial to Albany, which is overwhelmingly white, rather than continue the proceedings in the Bronx, where the shooting occurred. Taking the trial out of the city, says White, is an injustice for everyone involved. "Moving this case was a slap in the face of the people of the Bronx — it seems to suggest they aren't capable of providing a fair trial." Whether or not it ultimately proves to be fair, this trial will help shape future police procedures and definitions of excessive force — in New York and nationwide.