Verdict holds little surprise for lawyers with experience in police-shooting cases

Jurors often reluctant to second-guess officers acting in the line of duty

February 26, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

To lawyers who have tried to prosecute or defend police officers who kill in the line of duty, the acquittal of four New York City police officers in the death of Amadou Diallo came as no surprise.

"It was clear from the beginning there was no intent to do harm to this individual," said lawyer Henry Belsky, who frequently represents Baltimore police officers in shooting cases. "I'm sure there will be a civil suit, and that's a different issue. But nothing criminal happened here."

Many cases involving excessive force come down to whether prosecutors can prove an officer intended to cause injury or acted contrary to training. Many jurors, mindful that police defend them from crime, are loath to second-guess split-second decisions.

A Simi Valley, Calif., jury acquitted officers who were caught on videotape beating motorist Rodney King. In Maryland, the first Baltimore police officer in memory to be convicted of a crime in the line of duty -- Sgt. Stephen Pagotto, who shot a 22-year-old man who was driving away after the officer stopped his car in 1996 -- had his manslaughter conviction erased by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Prosecutors are appealing that decision.

The four officers in the Diallo case, who worked plainclothes for the New York City Police Department's elite Street Crime Unit, told jurors they fired on the Guinean immigrant -- 41 shots in all -- in self-defense after he pulled what they thought was a gun in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building Feb. 4, 1999. Diallo had a wallet in his hand.

David Marston, former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and now a lawyer in private practice, remembers well a police brutality case he prosecuted more than two decades ago, a case he thought was a sure thing.

Unlike in many cases, there were about 10 credible witnesses, people who saw police pull a black man from a car in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia and beat him. Before the case began, the defense lawyer told Marston he was going to lose.

Marston did.

"He told me I had too many witnesses, and people don't like the idea of ganging up on the cops," Marston recalled last night.

"Just looking at these facts, I didn't think these officers had the criminal intent to kill this guy," Marston said.

Michael Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said the case is "a classic example" of the threshold of proof required in police cases being too high.

"I think it's reasonable for jurors to give every reasonable doubt to a police officer under those circumstances," Millemann said. "That may explain the first 10, 15 bullets. But [41 bullets] certainly is more force than necessary."

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