N.Y. policemen face legal maze


Justice: A verdict of not guilty did not give legal immunity to the police officers who killed an unarmed immigrant.

February 29, 2000

WASHINGTON -- The jurors who found New York City police officers not guilty of any charges for killing an immigrant from Guinea have now explained their verdict: For them, the evidence did not add up to guilt. But the verdict, and the explanations, do not bring that highly divisive incident to a legal end. The Sun's Lyle Denniston examines where the case may go from here, and why.

What does it mean that the officers are not guilty for the death of Amadou Diallo, yet that verdict did not close the book on the case?

The officers have been freed from legal liability only in one sense: They were prosecuted for criminal offenses under state law, and their acquittal bars any further prosecution on those specific charges -- even if new evidence against them should turn up. But the jury had no authority to consider any other potential liability, criminal or civil.

But don't the acquittals mean that the officers, in fact, did not kill Diallo, so no one else could build another case against them based on what happened on Feb. 4, 1999?

Not at all. For one thing, innocence in a legal sense and innocence in a factual sense are entirely different matters. In the criminal trial, jurors decided that the prosecution had not proved the criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt. That does not mean they rejected all of the factual evidence the prosecutors offered. In fact, they might have agreed that every piece of that evidence was true, and still not have been convinced that prosecutors proved guilt, in a legal sense.

Indeed, the facts that prosecutors gathered and offered to the jury remain open for use by others who might want to pursue different legal action against the four policemen. In addition, the officers' testimony that they made a mistake could be used against them in different proceedings potentially still to come.

Are they at least free of any other state criminal charges?

Not necessarily. If prosecutors were to conclude that any of the officers lied on the witness stand during the trial, the not-guilty verdict does not shield them from a perjury prosecution. At this point, there is no indication of any such prosecution.

What other potential legal risks do they still face?

They could face federal criminal charges, a civil damages lawsuit and police disciplinary charges.

What federal criminal charges?

The Justice Department has been following the case from the beginning, and it has the authority to pursue federal criminal charges against one or all of the four officers -- presumably, under federal civil rights law. Federal law does not cover the crime of unlawful killing -- such as the crime of murder -- in the same way as New York law. But the department does have the authority, after an investigation that has now begun, to pursue charges of violating Diallo's federal civil rights.

The New York verdict would have no effect on that, and every piece of evidence, as well as newly gathered evidence, could be offered in such a case. The Supreme Court has ruled several times that the same crime can be prosecuted by back-to-back state and federal prosecutors.

The officers could not be required to testify in a federal criminal case, if they chose not to take the stand. Forcing them to testify against their will would violate their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

Would such a federal prosecution be unprecedented?

No. After the famous case of Los Angeles police officers being acquitted of state criminal charges for the beating of motorist Rodney King, the Justice Department successfully prosecuted them for federal civil rights violations, and their convictions were upheld by the Supreme Court. They went to prison.

What civil case could be filed?

Diallo's parents have said, according to news accounts, that they are considering filing civil damage charges against the officers under New York state law. The evidence from the prosecutors' criminal trial would be a centerpiece of such a case, and the officers could be forced to testify, since they cannot claim Fifth Amendment protection in a civil case.

If the parents won the case, they could get damages for their actual loss in their son's death, plus "punitive" damages to make an example of the officers and to deter others from similar conduct.

It would be easier for the parents to win such a case than it turned out to be for the prosecutors to win the criminal case, because the jury in the case would have to find the officers' responsible only by a "preponderance of the evidence," not "beyond a reasonable doubt." A "preponderance" standard of proof simply means that there is more reason to think they did act illegally than that they did not; the officers' trial testimony admitting a mistake could count against them on that point.

Would such a civil case be unprecedented?

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