Somebody got murdered. —The Clash
“So there came to be a time when you saw Mr. Diallo, right?”
“OK . . . Did there come to be a time when you observed Mr. Diallo—”
“Sustained. Limit the time frame of the question.”
“Did you come across Mr. Diallo on the night in question, February 4, 1999?”
“Overruled. You may answer.”
“Yes, we saw—”
“A simple yes or no only, please.”
It’s week three of New York’s first Trial of This Century, and the incendiary passions of race and retribution have been smothered by a plush warm blanket of boredom. A fat white SUNY Albany student who’s been here for the duration slumps into her hard wooden bench, audibly snoring. One of the cops’ relatives, who wears a button the size of a platter bearing his headshot, tries valiantly to project continuous seething rage at some impending miscarriage of justice but just can’t summon the requisite energy. She’s either his sister or his cousin; she won’t tell me which. All I know is that she’s occupied the same seat (right middle, just off the aisle) every day, and she’s desperately splashing Evian on her eyes in a valiant attempt to remain sentient. Her fucked-up makeup makes it appear as if her face is falling off. She looks like I feel.
The American justice system is actually an amazing achievement. In China, they try you first thing in the morning. Trials rarely last more than a few hours, and the convicted are often shot to death before lunch. Then they charge your family for the cost of the bullet. Now that’s high drama: You can go from dynamo drug dealer to disgraced dirt nap in less than a week. Here in the cradle of bureaucracy the courts are cleverly designed so that defendants face their fates long after tempers have cooled—long after most people stopped giving a damn about the alleged crimes under consideration, their victims, or their political implications. And once it begins, the trial process is an astonishingly mind-numbing triumph of nittering and trivia. Every syllable is challenged, considered, and recorded or discarded to the point that no one cares or remembers what was asked or answered afterward.
The trial of four cops for blowing Guinean street vendor Amadou Diallo into oblivion or the afterlife (depending on your religious preference) after minding his own business or acting suspiciously (depending on your racial sympathies) has been a relatively fast-track affair. Joseph Teresi, the Mayor Quimby-faced jurist presiding over the festivities, enjoys a well-deserved rep for keeping things moving. This was supposed to go six weeks plus in the Bronx; under Teresi it’ll be four.
The trouble is, everyone’s still bored shitless. The judge is so over a team of defense lawyers that insists on repeating questions that have already been asked or successfully objected to. The jury just wants to get home so they can check their e-mail. Even when baby-faced Sean Carroll starts bawling—”It was just a wallet. I said, ‘Where’s the fucking gun?’ “—he looks just a tad bored by his own Lifetime-cable-for-women performance.
The coup de grâce occurs with the testimony of criminologist James Fyfe, a Temple University professor and defense witness with a startling vocal and visual resemblance to Paul Bartel circa Eating Raoul. Asked to run through his résumé to establish his credentials as an expert on police department standards and practices, he launches into a scarcely interrupted 45-minute monologue on the arcane details of obtaining federal grant money to fund his studies of police shootings. At one point he even complains that nobody gave him any money for his latest study! The cumulative effect of James Fyfe is that of an annoying uncle from Harrisburg who whines like an NEA-supported artist and has the pomposity of a tenured faculty blowhard.
“Where do I go to drop this class?” a middle-aged black woman next to me whispers.
Nonetheless, Fyfe is one of the nation’s most sought-after expert witnesses, and it’s easy to see why. He certainly introduces reasonable doubt into my mind that officers Kenneth Boss, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, and Richard Murphy are guilty of second-degree murder. Whether you buy eyewitness Schrrie Elliott’s assertion that the cops began shooting before they identified themselves or the police version that Diallo spent the last few seconds of his life trying to run away while pulling his wallet out of his pocket (a weird scenario, but whatever), Fyfe puts you inside the minds of the cops that night. They’re looking for a gun-carrying serial rapist in a shitty part of the Bronx. When they talk to Diallo, he runs (or so they claim). The NYPD handbook tells policemen to stop suspects from entering apartment buildings no matter what, in order to forestall possible hostage crises. It’s a classic example of the department’s “scale of escalating force doctrine,” drones Fyfe: Using deadly force to prevent harm to third-party civilians is both acceptable and desirable.
Fyfe didn’t get paid for his testimony, but from now on he can park at any hydrant in the five boroughs he wants. Defense and prosecution subsequently agree to allow the jury to consider convicting these four fools—remember, believing them means accepting that they couldn’t tell the difference between a .25 and a wallet—of such lesser counts as manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. A murder conviction would mean a minimum of 15 years; the new charges carry penalties as light as probation.
The defendants brighten up in their cheap suits; their unindicted, uniformed brethren let out a gasp. Not even the African Americans chanting “no justice, no peace” in the snowy park across the street from the county courthouse truly believe that these four officers deliberately murdered Amadou Diallo. This was a colossal fuckup caused by incompetent, poorly trained police officers packing far too much firepower. Go to the firing range sometime; you’ll see. A 9mm squeezes off a dozen shots effortlessly. Diallo might still have been shot during the old .38 days, but he might have made it to the hospital alive. If the jury convicts at all, it won’t be for murder. And if there’s any justice at all, shouting “He’s got a gun!” when you’ve never been more wrong about anything will carry a much harsher sentence than opening fire after hearing your partner shout such a warning.
For the first time in weeks the defense team susses out the jury’s surly mood and rests without calling their previously scheduled expert on sight-line perspectives and perceptions. In the spirit of this fuck-the-trial moment, the D.A. turns down a chance to cross-examine the world’s most boring human being. And just like that, it’s sorta over: Closing arguments are scheduled for Tuesday, February 22.
The jurors, regardless of race, break out into wide smiles. We spectators can hardly believe it. School’s out, and we head downstairs past the row of metal detectors in the lobby to relish an unexpected snow day. A young black woman wearing a “Justice for Amadou” badge, who will say only that her name is Kelly, tells me that the four cops deserve to walk free.
I’m stunned. “Really? How come?” I ask.
“Anyone who can sit through a month of that boring shit has suffered enough.”
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