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Was Justice Achieved in Not-Guilty Verdict for Diallo Shooting?

Aired February 25, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, HOST: Tonight, the verdict is in: four white New York City police officers found not guilty in the shooting of Amadou Diallo. Is the verdict fair?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Mary Matalin.

PRESS: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Not guilty on all counts -- that was the unanimous jury verdict late this afternoon in the case of four New York City police officers accused of murder and manslaughter in the shooting of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo last February 1999. Even though Diallo, an unarmed man, was killed in a fusilade of 41 bullets, a jury of seven men and five women, four of those women African American, agreed that the officers fired because they thought their own lives were in danger.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani called on citizens to accept the verdict.


MAYOR RUDY GIULIANI, NEW YORK CITY: I don't know how any fair- minded person can look at the way this case was conducted and not come to the conclusion that it fits well within the parameters of a fair trial.


PRESS: But civil rights activist Al Sharpton, flanked by Diallo's mother and father, vowed to take the case now to federal court.


REV. AL SHARPTON, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: We said from the beginning that we would pursue this in the federal courts. We had to take a detour to Albany. That detour is over. But let it be clear that we will not rest until we get justice.


PRESS: And tonight, the Justice Department said it would review the Diallo case to see if federal action was justified.

So was this the right verdict? And should it end here? We'll debate that question with our guests tonight, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, president and founder of the Rainbow/Push Coalition, who will be joining us from Chicago, and in Albany, New York, Steven Worth, who is an attorney for officer Edward McMellon.

But first, before we get to our guests, we're going to check in in the Bronx in front of the building where Amadou Diallo lived, with CNN's Deborah Feyerick -- Mary.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bill, Mary, I can tell you that shortly after this verdict -- police have barricades here -- about 80 to 100 demonstrators, some of whom you can see behind me, they were chanting murderers and murderers, and at one point they took off to a local precinct, and there they demonstrated, returning to this location. They were taking their voices out to the streets.

Now the residents describe their feelings here as pain, anger and also fear. One woman said she cried after she heard the verdict. She said she was afraid that this sets a precedent should something like this happen again in the future.

Now earlier, the Bronx borough president said this verdict widens the gulf of suspicion and fear between the community and the police department. And on Wednesday, he and a group of clergy called for calm. They reiterated that call again, making sure that everybody remains peaceful. Some of these demonstrators earlier were taking their keys jangling them, and saying "don't shoot, don't shoot." Of course, that a reference to Amadou Diallo, who was shot as we has reaching into his pocket to pull something out.

Now as for what is going on here, really what stands out the most is the sense of order and calm. People here are angry. There's no question about it. There's the sense that had this trial taken place here in the Bronx, that the verdict would have been far different. But really, everybody is remaining quite calm, very orderly, but they are here to get their voices heard -- Bill, Mary.

PRESS: Deborah, let me ask you this: Has there been -- we saw earlier the official reaction from Mayor Giuliani? Has there been any presence there of anyone else from city hall? Have you heard anything more from city hall?

FEYERICK: Well, nobody from the mayor's office has come up here. There have been an a number of police officers, a number of people from the community, community policing just to maintain order. But earlier, the mayor did say that he expressed his condolences to the Diallo family. He also said that he expressed his sympathy to the four officers who were involved, and he said he still has one of the best police departments. He stands by them. He called this, of course, a "tragic event" -- Bill.

PRESS: Yes, Deborah, also, is there any planned rally tonight? Reverend Sharpton said that he was going back to that site. Do you know of any planned event tonight? Or is it just sort of spontaneous happening?

FEYERICK: Right now, this is pretty much a spontaneous gathering. Mrs. Diallo had called for some people to come on out here and say a prayer vigil for her son, Amadou.

But right now, about a hundred people, 150 people. There may be more folks coming out after they return home from work and hear the results of the trial today. But right now, everything calm. There are fliers being handed out right now for a rally tomorrow in midtown Manhattan, 59th Street and 5th Avenue, so it will be interesting to see how many people do show up there.

PRESS: All right, Deborah, thank you very, very much. That's Deborah Feyerick from CNN, of course, reporting from the Bronx -- Mary.

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Great. As Jesse Jackson joins us now from Chicago.

Reverend Jackson, thank you for joining us once again.

Al Sharpton said today, when he was flanking the family and calling for calm in the community, that a venue change denied the justice in this case. Let me read you something from Alan Dershowitz, who's a Harvard law school professor, not a conservative, but he said about this case in particular that -- and about changing the venue from the Bronx to Albany, that "conducting this trial in the Bronx ran the risk of making it a trial of the police for what they have done to the community over a long period of time. But there is only one constitutionally permissible issue in this trial or any other: Are these particular defendants individually guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the specific crime charged?"

Do you think the citizens in the Bronx or a jury constituted of those citizens would have been able to objectively answer that question, reverend?

REV. JESSE JACKSON, PRESIDENT & FOUNDER, RAINBOW/PUSH COALITION: Well, we can only speculate that. What we do know is that an unarmed man was killed, was shot at 41 times by the police and hit 19 times, and even shot when he was on the floor dying, and so what happened today in Albany was a gross miscarriage of justice.

And I talked with Attorney General Janet Reno about 45 minutes ago. She is going to head the review team to see if, in fact, Diallo's federal rights were violated, and if so, it will go to the next level. And I would urge people to be calm only because we have not exhausted the process of the justice system.

In California, when the four policemen nearly beat Rodney King to death in Simi Valley, freed them, the Department of Justice, upon monitoring it, they moved in and got the conviction. We with hope that will happen in this case as well.

MATALIN: Now, but, reverend, let's look at that jury in Albany that you say created a gross misjustice tonight. The makeup of that jury included four black women, two white women. They deliberated for three days over 20 hours. They heard all the verdicts -- I mean, they heard all the evidence, and they on all counts unanimously agreed that these officers were whatever -- the tragedy, the horror was in defense of their own lives. Do you think those jurors are -- what? Are you saying they're racist?

JACKSON: No. I do not know what technical road they went down, but there should be no reasonable doubt that the man was not armed, or did not come at them in a forward way, was not cursing them, did not have a stick that even looked like a gun, and he was shot at 41 times by four police. Clearly, this was overkill and zealotry by the police.

Now Mr. Giuliani you know has a pattern of giving comfort to these police when they engage in this kind of action. Or when Zedillo was shot in the back and killed, before the coroner said he was in the back, Giuliani chastised the mother for letting the boy be out after midnight. On the Marlin commission, they found 30 police indicted for selling drugs in the middle of Harlem. He cut off the commission that was doing the investigation. The Abner Louima case: In a police precinct session, he continues to give comfort as opposed to some corrective measures for this illegal, heinous behavior.

PRESS: Mr. Worth in Albany, thank you very much for joining us tonight. We have heard people on the streets tonight say that the message of this verdict is, if you're a cop and you've got a gun, you can shoot an unarmed black man and get away with it. Why isn't that the message that the jury sent today?

STEPHEN WORTH, ATTORNEY FOR EDWARD MCMELLON: Because this jury recognize that you can't Monday morning quarterback; you have to put yourself in the shoes of the police officers at the time of the incident, and you have to know what he knew.

The police officers obviously didn't shoot this man for no reasons. They believed that he was pulling out a weapon, all four of them believed, independently, that he was pulling out a weapon, and they fired when they had to. He had made a number of further movements and unusual movements, refused to comply with their commands to show his hands, and then produced something that appeared like a weapon, and they shot. The jury recognized you can't "Monday morning quarterback," and hopefully everyone else will too.

PRESS: Well, let's go back to the beginning. He's a 22-year-old man who's standing in the doorway of his apartment building, and the police driving by think that he looks suspicious.

Wasn't it the four cops who were excessively suspicious in this case? What was the man doing that could possibly have been illegal?

WORTH: Well, the full testimony is -- first of all, it's 12:40 in the morning. Secondly, as the police drove down the block, not only the police but independent witnesses saw Mr. Diallo peering in and out of the doorway in a way that indicated he did not want to be seen. Now, police officers are supposed to make an inquiry when they see that kind of activity. They didn't get out of the car with guns blazing. They got out of the car, identified themselves and said they wanted to talk to him. It was only after he wouldn't talk to him -- talk to them, come near them, show them his hands and in fact tried to run away that the incident escalated.

Finally, they -- he produce a wallet, but it appeared to be a weapon, and they fired.

JACKSON: This is a logical conclusion of race profiling. By their own admission, they murdered an unarmed man. They feel a sense of guilt, a sense of remorse, so they themselves feel guilty. Then to be exonerated in the face of this, it creates a crisis for the police department. There are no winners in this. Diallo lost, the police lost.

And police of conscience who really do care are in this code of silence because we need good, strong police. But we do not need police who are untrained, who overreact and whether in the Riverside, California case with Tyisha Miller or the case in New York of Abner Louima, or the case of Diallo, this madness must stop.

MATALIN: OK, Reverend, we need to go to a break. And when we come back, we'll answer the dramatic decrease in crime. Is the cost of that a dramatic increase in racial tension?

Stay with us.

We'll be right back.


MATALIN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

The FBI deems New York City the safest large city in America. But while crime has been reduced dramatically, racial tension has increased. Is there a connection? What is it?

For answers, Reverend Jesse Jackson, president and founder of the Rainbow/Push coalition, and Stephan Worth, defense attorney for Edward McMellon -- Bill.

PRESS: Mr. Worth, I'm not trying to "Monday morning quarterback" either, but I'd like to ask you just one more question about that evening, or early that morning.

As I read the testimony, the police officers stopped about seven or eight car lengths away from the building. I don't know -- from that distance, one of them said they couldn't even tell whether this man was black or not, but I don't know from that distance how they could tell he had a gun or a wallet. But if they suspected, as they did, that he had a gun, wouldn't you have to agree that there's other evasive action they could have taken, taking cover, calling for back- up, that the only option was not for all of them to empty their guns?

WORTH: Well, again, I'm glad you're not going to "Monday morning quarterback," but you just did.

PRESS: I'm asking you question, sir.

WORTH: Sure, OK. The reality is -- is, you know, when they backed up, all they wanted to do was talk to this man. They got out of the car, they identified themselves, and they said, could we have a word with you? And they motioned to him to come over to them. This is a routine stop that police officers make all the time. They'd already seen him peering in and out of a doorway and it's 12:40 in the morning.

Rather than come over to them -- and we now know that Mr. Diallo did speak English, so that's not the issue -- he chose to run away and started tugging to get something out of his pocket. You could imagine, if you'd give the officers the benefit of the doubt, that they asked him repeatedly to get his hands where they could see him and to stop trying to pull something out of his pocket. Rather than doing this...

JACKSON: They wouldn't have done this in (OFF-MIKE), sir.

PRESS: Had they identified themselves as police officers? Because they were in plain clothes, so...

WORTH: Yes. PRESS: ... did he know they were cops?

WORTH: Well, they pulled their shields out as they do hundreds of times when they stop people. They want them to know they're police officers because they don't want to have a problem with them. They wanted...

PRESS: But were...

WORTH: Go ahead.

PRESS: Let me ask you this. Reverend Jackson alluded to this earlier. I was in Los Angeles when the Rodney King verdict came down, and of course when that trial was moved to Simi Valley. The officers were acquitted the first time. Then it went to federal court, and the officers were found guilty of violating the civil rights of Rodney King.

Is that the next step here? Do you expect that? And are you prepared to go to federal court?

WORTH: Well, the answer is I don't know if it's the next step. But we intend to be in touch with the Justice Department next week ourselves. And we're going to ask them to make speedy review of this matter. It does -- you should be aware that the Justice Department interviewed a key witness in this case last March. They were involved. The FBI was involved in the investigation. So, it's not like they're going to be looking at this case for the first time. They've been involved since the very beginning. And quite frankly, we hope and trust they'll come to the conclusion that this is an error of judgment, not a denial of civil rights. JACKSON: They have been monitoring. They have not been involved. They must now get involved. Yes, crime is down, profiling is up, prison construction is up. There are now two million Americans in jail. And though blacks are 12 percent of the population, we're 55 percent of the jail population. So when you see the stereotyping and the assumptions and who is taking the brunt of the violence, and there's a consistent pattern here. Whether Tyisha Miller in Riverside, California or Louima or Diallo, it's time for a real national review of this kind of very violent behavior.

MATALIN: OK, Reverend Jackson, of the few things that you and I might have disagreed on over our years together, the one thing that I've always appreciated and found very compelling, your work on -- because I live in our nation's capital -- is black-on-black crime. It happens too much. It's horrific, too close to home. We see it every day here.

Minority communities have been historically underpoliced and more affected by crime. And because of this dramatic reduction in crime in New York, obviously, black-on-black crime has been reduced.

I'm asking you as a civil rights leader who has worked on these kind of problems, where is the breakdown in the community that wishes to be safe but resents those that would secure its safety? How do you bring that back together?

JACKSON: Well, race profiling is a crime. People who were less able to defend themselves in court and go to jail, that in fact, is a failure of our judicial system. You know, Matalin, 85 percent of all rural arrests are white. Seventy-four percent of all the urban arrests are white, but 55 percent of all of those in jail are black. That's connected with profiling and not having good lawyers.

I'm concerned about the character of crime, not just its color. But clearly, that is an undeniable racial pattern. And of course, we now know that that must end. It's illegal. It's violent. It's deadly.

MATALIN: I'm talking about the relationships between the police officers who are securing these communities and because these kinds of street teams have been credited for this dramatic reduction in crime, again, it's happening in the black community. How can you reconcile the community with the officers? Because there's a blaze about to happen in the Bronx here despite Al Sharpton's calling for calm. It's going to blaze up and it's going to hurt the people that live there.

JACKSON: Well, we're all calling for calm, because a, we should spend our time now using the law to exhaust the justice process. We saw, across the South, you have local officers, state officers, in effect, defending some civil rights act of violence and we would have to go to the federal level. It happened in the case of Rodney King.

It must happen -- people in the street must not self-destruct, must not panic, must not get caught in precipitating more violence. We cannot is resolve this matter eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, and leave all of us blind, disfigured and dead. Let's exhaust the judicial process. I think Reverend Sharpton's appeal is a smart appeal. I hope it's heard by everybody.

MATALIN: So you think Al Sharpton is the best guy to lead this call for calm given his history?

JACKSON: Well, he's the guy who's present on the scene, and he's doing a good job, but he is not standing alone in calling for calm, order, and a review. Janet Reno is going to hear the review. Vice President Gore is calling for a review. And so, the call for a review is a fairly broad, spread, reasonable proposition.

PRESS: Mr. Worth, just -- we're almost out of time -- just a quick question. I heard a couple of defense officers today on CNN -- I don't think you were one of them, sir, so I'm not putting these words in your mouth -- but a couple of them said -- quote -- "police officers have to be able to do their jobs," after the verdict. Another one said: "The story here is people make mistakes."

Sir, aren't they rather weak, lame excuses that, sort of, send a message to cops that anything goes?

WORTH: You know, I can't even -- anything goes? Does anybody seriously think that anything goes? You know, the fact of the matter is that you have to know the facts of a given case. And it's unfortunate that Reverend Jackson wants to pontificate without knowing the facts of this case. Police officers have civil rights too and...

PRESS: Right, Thank you.

WORTH: All right.

PRESS: And on that point, nobody's going to be able to pontificate because we are out of time. Reverend Jackson, thank you very...


PRESS: Reverend Jackson, thank you very much for joining us from Chicago. Attorney Steven Worth, thank you for joining us from Albany.

And Mary and I will be back with our closing comments.


PRESS: Mary, for the record, I have great respect for police officers. They have the toughest job -- one of the toughest jobs in the world. I wouldn't do it for a million dollars. And I have to admit, I was not in the jury room, I didn't hear all the evidence. But I don't see how you can possibly justify four cops with four guns shooting 41 bullets at an unarmed man and getting away with it. I think it's a horrible verdict!

MATALIN: And guns were flying. Bullets were ricocheting. One cop was down when Diallo fell. Carroll grabbed his hand and cried, please don't die, please don't die, when he realized it was a wallet. We don't know what it's like on the street. But I don't know how these can be called, by those civil rights activists, a miscarriage of justice when a jury of their peers, which were one-third black, including the forewoman of the jury, deliberated for 20 hours over three days and called them -- acquitted them on all counts.

PRESS: Now, wait, wait, wait. Juries don't always get it right. Listen, I lived through the Rodney King thing. And we have a great system of justice, but sometimes, people make mistakes. I think these people -- they worked hard, god bless them, did their job. They made a big mistake. And I bet it's going to be overturned in federal court.

MATALIN: Bigger mistake was trying these officers on the streets.

PRESS: Oh, no, no. From the left, I'm Bill Press.

Good night for CROSSFIRE. Have a good weekend.

MATALIN: From the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Do have a wonderful weekend and join us again next week for more episodes of CROSSFIRE.

PRESS: Episodes?


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