Diallo Trial Is Over but Many Questions Remain

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Four white New York City policemen charged with murdering an unarmed black man are free — but the trial of the New York City police department has probably only just begun. On Sunday the Rev. Al Sharpton staged a protest at the U.N. over the controversial verdict: All four officers accused of murdering West African immigrant Amadou Diallo found not guilty Friday evening on 24 counts ranging from murder in the second degree to reckless endangerment. While New York's cops had prepared for the worst, reaction in the city was more bewildered and pained than violent. People began to take sides; Governor George Pataki backed the jurors, who, in limited contact with the media, have explained that race did not enter into their deliberations and that the prosecution's case just did not warrant conviction on any of the six charges brought against each officer.

What the ultimate fallout will be is still unclear; there's talk of a civil suit or federal action. But, says TIME columnist Jack White, two people will pay dearly for this verdict. "Rudy Giuliani and Bronx district attorney Robert T. Johnson are going to catch hell for this," says White. "Johnson screwed up this case so badly he'll never be elected again." Many Diallo supporters contend that Johnson's office was ill-prepared to handle this case. Giuliani, whose presumptive campaign for the U.S. Senate could hinge on the crucial New York City vote, was on television moments after the verdict was read. He offered his "sincere sympathy" to Diallo's family and, without irony, extended that same sympathy to the four police officers.

That likely will not play well in the Soundview section of the Bronx, where, White says, "the entire black community is vibrating like a plucked string." On Friday and throughout the weekend, anguished crowds gathered into the evening on the block where Diallo was gunned down, some standing silently with candles, others incoherent in their anger. "My son could end up as the next Amadou Diallo," one young father cried out.

Ironically, the sense of unease between the police and the citizens of Soundview that was so evident Friday night and so much a characteristic of that community did not much permeate the proceedings inside the courtroom. That, White says, presented a serious problem for the prosecution. Judge Joseph Teresi's strict guidelines and businesslike pace kept the district attorney's office from presenting evidence explicating the dynamic between the street crime unit and the citizens they were charged with protecting — a discussion that might have touched on the racially charged aspects of this case. "We can say with a great deal of confidence that if Amadou Diallo were white, he wouldn't have died like this," says White.

In New York City — and around the country — the police and the communities they serve will grapple with this verdict for some time. "People are in a state of shock and fury that these police officers could fire 41 shots at Diallo and walk away," says White. "The fact that there were four black women on the jury may serve to relieve at least some of the tension in the black community."

Although they were visibly relieved as they were cleared of all charges, the officers aren't exactly home free; they could face administrative charges from within the police department, and may also be involved in a civil trial. In addition, Mary Jo White, the U.S. district attorney for the area, has indicated that her office will launch a federal investigation to determine whether Diallo's civil rights were violated — an investigation that could take years to complete.