In a case rife with racial tensions, a prosecutor asserted Wednesday that four white New York City police officers acted recklessly and with depraved indifference when they killed an unarmed West African immigrant in a barrage of gunfire.
"We will prove by the number of shots fired at very close range," said Assistant District Attorney Eric Warner, "that these four defendants intended to kill" Amadou Diallo. The 22-year-old street vendor was shot to death last February in the vestibule of his home.
During opening arguments at the officers' murder trial, Warner said that the defendants "never called out commands like "Stop, police!' or "Don't move!' before firing a total of 41 bullets at Diallo," who was hit 19 times.
"A number struck him while he was falling down or actually on the ground," the prosecutor told the jury of six men and six women.
But defense lawyers said the officers were following established procedures the night they encountered Diallo and had a well-founded fear when they fired.
The attorneys said that while the officers were driving through what they believed was a dangerous neighborhood, they noticed Diallo standing near the stoop of a building. He ducked back into the vestibule as the officers passed.
Bennett M. Epstein, who is representing Officer Sean Carroll, said Diallo's peeping out again started a chain reaction. He said the police officers ordered Diallo to show his hands, and when he didn't comply, the officers pursued him with weapons drawn "as they are trained to do."
"He turns his back to them and runs for the inner door and tries to enter the building," Epstein continued. "He reaches into his pocket. He turns quickly toward the officers and he extends his hand forward with a black object."
That object turned out to be his wallet.
"The case you are being asked to reflect upon in the warmth, safety and splendor of this courtroom took place in just a few seconds in the middle of the night, in the middle of the winter, in a dimly lit vestibule in a dangerous area," Epstein told the jury, which includes four black women.
"All the Monday morning quarterbacking in the world is no substitute for being in the shoes of those four police officers," he said.
Diallo's slaying unleashed a torrent of criticism against the New York City Police Department and the tactics of its elite street-crime unit.
Large demonstrations took place citywide, with members of minority groups saying that they were routinely and unfairly stopped and frisked by members of the unit.
Some protesters charged that Diallo's shooting amounted to nothing less than an execution.
After an appeals court ruled that the officers couldn't receive a fair trial in New York because of prejudicial publicity, the case was moved to Albany, 150 miles north of the city.
Defense lawyers said Carroll, 36, and his co-defendants Edward McMellon, 27, Kenneth Boss, 28, and Richard Murphy, 27, would testify on their own behalf.
Stephen Worth, McMellon's lawyer, said Wednesday that the officers were on trial only because "there was a furor created by people who have their own agendas over this shooting."
"This is a tragedy. There is no doubt about that Amadou Diallo did not deserve to die," Worth said. Despite that, he added, "The officers were justified in their shooting."
Conviction could carry a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison.