- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2000

Before four New York City policeman were found "not guilty" in the murder of Amadou Diallo, most people blamed the cops. Now a lot of these people are not so sure. Though they were certainly the instrument of Diallo's death, the jury decided they didn't kill him arbitrarily.

The 19 shots fired, incredible though it seems, were actually fired in self-defense. The cops were victims too of a horrible visual error of misinterpreting a wallet for a gun. Such was the verdict.

Watching the policemen testify as recorded by television, it was easy for troubled viewers to take as authentic their remorse, and their explanation of errors of perception. Nevertheless, the jury's verdict does not satisfy any of us. Black and white, we want to understand why such things happen. It's not easy.

Few second-guess the jury, which was one-third black (including the forewoman). There's no evidence the trial was not fair. The New York Police Department will soon begin its own investigation and we can be sure it will be scrutinized by the public and an exhaustive (and exhausting) public debate will follow on police procedure.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the noted racist rabble-rouser whose claim to fame is the invention of the Tawana Brawley hoax, protested outside the courthouse throughout the jury deliberations. The jurors refused to be intimidated. They couldn't see racism as the cause of the tragedy. Nor could James Fyfe, a defense witness who in other cases has testified against the police.

The inevitable post-verdict marchers demonstrated in different parts of New York City, from Fifth Avenue to City Hall, from the United Nations Plaza to the Bronx apartment building where Amadou lived and died. They were a mixture of protesters and mourners, lighting candles and venting more frustration than rage. The police showed praiseworthy restraint even as they were spat upon and called murderers.

Amadou's mother, a compelling figure of dignity and grief, begged for calm: "Nothing can replace Amadou. Nothing can bring him back. But if his case can help the situation so that people can live in peace, that would be a great honor." And so it would: She could not bear that a riot would commemorate her child.

Hillary Clinton, who a month before had called the death "a murder" and then, chagrined, withdrew her rush to judgment, offered a temperate reaction after the verdict. She asked for better community relations between blacks and whites. No argument from anyone there.

In an eloquent testimony to the power of the jury system, the conventional wisdom before the trial, all but unanimously against the policemen, was ignored by their 12 peers in Albany. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who was criticized by nearly everyone for shooting-off his lip from the hip, kept his focus clear, refusing to dump on the cops when most of his constituency was dumping on them and him. If the jury had gone with the emotional flood tide, ignored the evidence, and found the policemen guilty of murder, the public might well have been appeased by injustice.

Amadou Diallo becomes an ill-fated immigrant Everyman, a man confused by plainclothes policemen, an innocent victim of a stop-and-search policy that may have been unfair in confronting the innocent to keep the guilty with guns off the street. Procedures can be changed many already have been without neutering the cops. More street-crime cops will wear uniforms and become more familiar with the neighborhoods they police. We can mourn the death of Amadou Diallo by making sure it was not in vain and holds lessons for us all.

I'm a frequent visitor to New York, and it's impossible not to appreciate the changes on the streets. Once the turf of violent drug hustlers, the streets are no longer littered with the filth of drug paraphernalia. Amadou Diallo's neighborhood, which is dirty and dangerous, remains a high-crime district though it, too, has given up illegal guns.

"Nothing can change the fact that an innocent and decent man is dead," says the mayor. "I wish we could go back and undo everything that happened that night." One of the jurors got it right, too: "You have to go with the evidence before you."

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