Although it happened twenty-two years ago, the harrowing story of Amadou Diallo has received recent media attention as a result of being featured on Netflix series Trial by Media, a crime docuseries that features historically dramatic trials whose verdicts were heavily influenced by the media shaping public opinion.
Amadou Diallo was a 23-year-old who immigrated from his comfortable life in Guinea to New York City to chase his American dream of attending college to become a teacher. In the final conversation he had with his mother, Kadiatou Diallo, four days before his death, he told her he had saved $9,000 for tuition. He did so by selling different goods along 14th Street during the day. At approximately 12:40 a.m. on February 4, 1999, Amadou was returning home and standing in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment complex when four plain-clothed police officers approached him. The men were part of the now disbanded Street Crime Unit and were allegedly searching for a serial rapist. The officers ordered Amadou to show his hands, and when he reached for his wallet, one of the officer’s screamed that he had a gun. Horrifically, standing in his narrow vestibule with nowhere to escape, Amadou was shot 41 times, with 19 of the bullets striking and killing him. When officers looked on his person, they found nothing but his wallet. An eyewitness who later took the stand to testify stated that police continued to shoot him even when Amadou was already down. Amadou’s older cousin, who was also living in the Bronx at the time he was killed, still doesn’t understand the use of force, stating “even to kill an animal you don’t need 41 bullets.” A day after his death, Reverend Al Sharpton called the shooting a “police slaughter” and joined forces with Amadou’s mother throughout the trial to humanize her son and shed light on the injustices that Black people have historically faced by police practices.
A Rare Change of Venue
In late March, a grand jury indicted the officers for reckless endangerment and second-degree murder. During this period, tensions rose in New York and throughout the country with anti-police demonstrations pushing for police reform, as well as protests that Amadou’s killing was racially motivated. Nearly nine months later, a change of venue was ordered after lawyers for the officers persuaded the court of appeals that pretrial publicity had made a fair trial impossible in the Bronx. This change was followed with immense backlash, as much of the public was outraged that jury selection would now take place in a predominantly white area as opposed to the Bronx, a predominantly Black area. The fact that a change of venue took place speaks to how powerful this case was and its significant impact on the community in terms of raising pertinent questions about race and police brutality. In the past fifty years, the Supreme Court has issued rulings acknowledging that local prejudice can “be so incompatible with a defendant’s rights to an impartial jury that a trial in that community violates due process and may require a change of venue.” If you would like to read more about changes of venue and the tests used to determine when they are appropriate, you can do so here: Should Engrained Community Discrimination Constitute a Change of Venue?
The Albany Trial
After jury selection, the jury consisted of four black women, one white woman, and seven white men. This was after the defense attorneys for the officers attempted to use peremptory challenges
to remove three of the black women from the jury, a move that the judge refused to allow. In a courtroom clearly divided by race, prosecutors, Rev. Al Sharpton, the parents, and supporters of Amadou sat on one side, while the defense, family, friends, and colleagues of the officers sat on the other, refusing to engage with one another whatsoever. Prosecutors questioned the officers on cross-examination, specifically Officer Carroll, who screamed out that Amadou had a gun, asking if they ever thought of the intimidation and fear that could arise from four plain-clothed men with guns approaching someone in the middle of the night. In addition, Officer Carroll stated that he never considered that “Mr. Diallo might have had a legitimate reason for being where he was, or that he might have lived in the building.” The officers expressed remorse for their actions but blamed Amadou for not keeping his hands in sight. The four officers were acquitted of all charges and protestors took the street to express their anger.
Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a national symbol of safer streets, initially refused to condemn the cops, stating “we all have to wait and react to facts”. Giuliani reached out to Amadou’s family to express remorse about the situation, yet, on the day Amadou’s body was to be flown to his home country, he made the announcement that officers would be issued deadly hollow-point bullets. After the verdict, Giuliani again expressed remorse to Amadou’s family but stated “it fills me with profound respect for being an American and for living in a country that has trial by jury.” Ultimately, the trial of the officers was also a trial of Giuliani’s “zero-tolerance” policy on crime that included the Street Crimes Unit, coined as a city-wide anti-crime unit with the motto “We Own the Night”. The unit was disbanded as a result of the backlash of Amadou’s case after a federal investigation accused the unit of racial profiling and other civil rights violations. Amadou’s parents received a $3 million settlement and started the New York nonprofit the Amadou Diallo Foundation, which promotes racial healing and higher education by providing college scholarships to students who are immigrants from Africa.
As the world still grapples with the death of George Floyd and the eruption demanding change in police practices that followed, we cannot forget that Amadou Diallo opened the door for scrutiny of police brutality and racial disparities. Amadou’s death, similar to George Floyd’s death, was undoubtedly an essential moment in history that helped ignite imperative change. However, as we lie more Black men to rest from killings that echo the killing of Amadou, we must ask ourselves, when will police violence rooted in racial inequality stop?
Attorney Don Pumphrey, Jr. is a former prosecutor, former law enforcement officer, and a successful and experienced criminal defense attorney. Don has achieved over 100 not guilty verdicts at trial and over 2,000 dismissals.