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Jewish World Review Feb. 17, 2000 /11 Adar 1, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Law on trial

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- LAW ITSELF IS ON TRIAL in an Albany courtroom where four New York City policemen are accused of murder in the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant. For a shockingly large number of people, the fact that the cops are white and the man who was shot was black is all they need to know in order to take sides.

And taking sides is the issue for them, not finding the truth or dispensing justice. This approach has already been tried extensively throughout the South during the Jim Crow era. It took decades of struggle and sacrifice -- including the sacrifice of lives -- to break down that system of double-standard "justice." Now it has come back into fashion again, with a new color scheme.

The tragic facts of the Diallo shooting are pretty plain. Even before the police arrived on the scene, Amadou Diallo was -- for whatever reason -- stationed in a doorway at night and periodically looking both ways up and down the street. Another resident of the area, coming home from work, was struck by what this resident says seemed to him at the time to be "suspicious" behavior. The prosecuting attorney immediately objected to this word and the judge immediately ordered it stricken from the record.

When a police car with four cops inside rolled by later, after midnight, they too considered Diallo's behavior suspicious. When they stopped the car and got out, Diallo fled back inside the building. There, in a dimly lit hallway, he reached inside his jacket and pulled out a black object and held it out toward the cops. One of the policemen yelled "Gun!" By a horrible coincidence, another policeman toppled backwards off the steps onto the sidewalk, as if he had been shot, and his fellow officers opened fire on Diallo.

The driver of the car rushed toward the fallen officer and asked where he had been hit. But he had not been hit. He had just lost his balance and fallen back off the steps. Nor did Diallo have a gun. He had taken out his wallet and held it out toward the police. It was a tragedy of errors.

Enter the race hustlers, the politically correct media and politicians in an election year. Al Sharpton, who first gained fame by making wild accusations against policemen in the Tawana Brawley hoax, has of course jumped in with both feet and mobs of supporters. Hillary Clinton has called it "murder" -- and she is a lawyer who should know better, especially with a trial going on.

Even in the courtroom, the atmosphere of intimidation has continued, unchecked by the judge who considered it offensive when a witness said that he found Diallo's actions suspicious.

Witnesses who have anything to say that might support the policemen's testimony have had wholly unnecessary identifying information publicized and read into the record. The witness who said that his suspicions caused him to pay attention to Diallo as he walked home after parking his truck not only had his address, but his apartment number as well, identified by the prosecutor in open court.

Supposedly this was to show that he lived in the rear and could not have seen what happened after he got home. But the witness had never claimed to have seen anything from his apartment. What this uncalled-for statement did was put the witness on notice in the courtroom that local neighborhood hotheads now knew where to find him and his family. It was a shot across his bow, a warning not only to him, but to any other witness who might say anything that would support what the policemen had said.

Do we wonder why witnesses don't come forward?

A nurse who heard the shots while attending a patient across the street was asked for the name of her patient, even though the patient was not a witness and never claimed to have seen or heard anything. When that was objected to, she was then asked whether the patient was male or female and how old. This was unconscionable in the atmosphere of hostility and lawlessness that has been whipped up over this shooting.

As someone who taught pistol shooting in the Marine Corps, I was not the least bit surprised by the number of shots fired -- or by the fact that most of them missed. Nobody counts his own shots, much less other people's shots, in a life-and-death situation. This is not an arcade game, where lights go off to tell you whether you hit the target. You shoot until it looks safe to stop.

A lot of lights ought to go off about this trial and the way both witnesses and justice itself are being threatened, inside and outside the courtroom.


JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate