A post-Diallo calm, a hope US will act

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Standing quietly in the damp chill afternoon amid thousands of other protesters on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, Goldie Davis is "raging mad and praying to God that good will come of it."

The middle-aged, middle-class mother from Brooklyn embodies the controlled indignation that spilled into the streets here and in other cities from Newark, N.J., to Atlanta over the weekend, after the acquittal of four white police officers accused of murdering Amadou Diallo.

In the year since the officers mistook the unarmed African immigrant's wallet for a gun and killed him in a hail of 41 bullets, Diallo has become a national symbol of a perceived police racism that assumes black males to be dangerous.

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But this verdict did not immediately lead to the sort of violence that followed similar verdicts, such as in Los Angeles after the trial of officers charged with beating Rodney King.

One reason is that protesters like Ms. Davis are still hanging their hopes on intervention by the federal government.

Within hours of the verdict, the US Attorney's office announced it will investigate whether the four officers violated Diallo's civil rights. While it's not clear if that will result in new federal charges, African-American leaders and Diallo's parents have used the prospect of federal intervention to appeal for calm.

"We believe the federal government will turn this around," says Al Sharpton, the controversial New York civil rights leader.

As of this writing, the pleas for calm were mostly heeded, but not everywhere. On Saturday afternoon, several thousand protesters broke through police barricades in Midtown and began marauding in bands toward in lower Manhattan. While dozens were arrested, the crowds remained mostly nonviolent.

In one incident, protesters stopped a few people who began overturning police scooters, reminding them that Kadiatou Diallo had urged a nonviolent response as a show of respect for her slain son.

Last month, in anticipation of a possible acquittal, Mrs. Diallo and her husband, Saikou, the Rev. Mr. Sharpton, and New York Congressman Charles Rangel met with US Justice Department officials to urge consideration of a civil rights case. They will meet with them again tomorrow, prior to a national march scheduled for the nation's capital on Thursday.

New York's heightened racial tensions over the past two years - sparked by the Diallo case and the police brutalization of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima - add to optimism that the US government will act. But legal experts caution it's unusual for the federal government to step in after a state case has been decided.

"The number of times it happens in civil rights cases is one or two a year," says Assistant US Attorney Alan Vinegrad, who recently prosecuted a New York police officer for sodomizing Mr. Louima in a precinct bathroom.

Federal civil rights law allows the US government to bring a criminal case against a government official who uses that position to deprive someone of his civil rights, or against a private individual who commits violence motivated by racial or religious animus. While the power is used sparingly, many cases have been high-profile.

In 1993, after an all-white suburban jury acquitted four police officers of using excessive force in the beating of Rodney King, riots erupted in Los Angeles. The US government then brought civil rights charges, and a mixed-race jury in Los Angeles County convicted two of the four.

In New York in 1998, former police officer Francis Livoti was convicted on federal civil rights charges for strangling Anthony Baez using a choke hold that was banned by the police department. He had been acquitted earlier of state charges in a nonjury trial.

While the United States Constitution prohibits a state from trying a defendant for the same crime twice, the US Supreme Court has ruled the federal government can bring its own case. The theory is that federal interests differ from those of the state.

Many legal experts, however, question that logic. "It was wrong in the Rodney King case, and it would be wrong in this case," says Alan Dershowitz, a criminal defense lawyer who teaches at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.

But the federal prosecutors who won convictions in the second Rodney King trial insist the government has a legitimate interest in ensuring that an individual's civil rights are protected.

"When you look at the history of this country, the answer to that question has to be yes," says Lawrence Middleton, a former assistant US attorney.

In general, federal charges are brought only if the state trial is proved to be unfair. Prosecutorial incompetence, jury disregard for the law, or significant new evidence are factors that could result in a federal suit.

But federal cases are also more difficult to prove. If such charges are brought in the Diallo case, prosecutors would have to show the officers intended to violate his civil rights. All four have testified they thought they were firing in self-defense.

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, says he does not believe federal intervention is warranted. The Diallo case, he says, "fits well within the perimeters of a fair trial."

Lawyers arguing in favor of a federal suit cite two factors as reasons the US government should step in: the change of venue to Albany and the quality of the prosecution. Even if the US does not act, the city faces civil suits brought by Diallo's family.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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