Murder Trial Focuses on Fear and Hatred
Who will speak for Amadou Diallo?

by Raymond M. Brown, Special to MSNBC

NEW YORK, Feb. 7 —  Fear owned the night that Amadou Diallo died. Shortly after midnight on Feb. 4, 1999, four white policemen pursuing a rape suspect encountered Diallo, a 22-year-old African immigrant.  He was alone in the dimly lit vestibule of his Bronx apartment house, armed only with his wallet, his beeper and his keys.  The four defendants say they shot him out of fear that he was a violent criminal reaching for his gun.  Did Diallo act from fear, and if so, who will speak for him?

In his opening remarks to the jury last week, the prosecutor in the case charged that the defendants left their unmarked car near Diallo’s apartment house and gave no commands before they opened fire.  Lawyers for the defendants contend Diallo ignored their warnings and reached for an object which proved to be a black wallet.  They say Diallo’s actions made them shoot.

Time-honored legal principles say that “reasonable fear” can justify the use of appropriate force.  This explains defense counsel’s promise that these defendants will testify about the fear that launched their 41-bullet fusillade that killed the only person who could actually say what fear the young immigrant felt that night

It is not uncommon for police shootings to occur in the absence of witnesses.  Therefore we can expect some clichéd courtroom answers to the question of who will speak for Amadou Diallo.  The wounds from the 19 rounds that pierced his body; the angles at which they penetrated will tell whether he was standing or prone when shot, and how far away the defendants were when they opened fire.  The brightness of the lights, the pattern of the shots will serve as “voices” for Diallo.  Perhaps that is the best the state can do.  But these will be oblique voices matched against dramatic tales of fear and danger told by policeman who, if convicted, face imprisonment and disgrace.

How, then, can we know Diallo’s feelingsand actions just before his death?  The defendants claim they displayed their badges: did Diallo ignore their status, weaponry and warnings?  Should we assume that he reached quickly for his wallet in a gesture guaranteed to unleash a barrage of bullets?  These defendants say yes — but who speaks for Diallo?

Defense counsel has proposed an answer.  The defendants’ attorneys say Diallo behaved suicidally in the face of four aggressive policemen because he had immigration problems stemming from his false asylum claim.

As a trial lawyer, I have spent a quarter-century representing frightened defendants.  I’ve been black many more years than that and am intimately familiar with the fear caused by police violence towards people of color.  Since 1996, when I covered war crimes trials in the Hague that were rooted in ethnic hatred, I have pondered the relationship of fear to justice.

In the process, I have become reacquainted with the writings of the late Howard Thurman, a black theologian who sat with Mohandas K. Gandhi and counseled the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In considering the connection between fear and hatred, Thurman raised the unlikely story of “Bambi” to explain how the “children of the disinherited” are conditioned to reduce their exposure to violence.  He described how the old stag in the story trained the young deer to detect and avoid the hunter’s gun:  “The stag,” Thurman wrote, “is unwilling to leave Bambi until he is sure that the young deer has made his body commit to memory ways of behaving that will protect and safeguard his life.”

African-American parents spend lifetimes teaching children to “commit to memory” life-protecting behavior in the presence of police:  No back talk; no sudden movements; keep your hands in view.  The black child in America not schooled in these survival skills has not been truly parented.

Amadou Diallo was born in Guinea.  Are we to assume he had not absorbed this code of survival for folks of color as he hustled videos on Manhattan’s streets and lived in the same Bronx that so frightened the police?  Will these lessons be discussed in the jury room — and by the body politic?

But fear of protests in New York have led the court to move the Diallo to Albany, a city as racially and culturally distant from the Bronx as the Casbah is from the Yukon.

Was there no one in the world inhabited by Amadou Diallo to teach him the lessons of survival?  Did he not absorb some of them himself?  A Bronx jury would wrestle with these questions — compelled by experience to delve into the heart of all the fears and their impostors that were afoot that night.  That four blacks are on the Albany jury and that three jurors have had ties to the Bronx may shed some light on these dark questions. But is it enough?       

Raymond M. Brown is a trial attorney in New Jersey and host of the PBS program, “Inside the Law.” A veteran Court TV correspondent and anchor, he now teaches international criminal law at Seton Hall University and is a legal analyst for MSNBC.

bottom.gif (1480 bytes)