NEW YORK — Testifying through tears, the police officer who fired the first of 41 shots at an unarmed West African immigrant told a jury Monday he pulled the trigger because he believed his target was wearing a bulletproof vest and was shooting at his partner.
After 19 bullets struck Amadou Diallo, Officer Sean Carroll said he knelt alongside the victim, who was breathing his last breath in the vestibule of a building in the Bronx.
"I said, 'Oh my God,' and I just held his hand," Carroll said, recalling he pleaded, "Please don't die."
Carroll, who is on trial for murder along with three other white officers, related he looked down at what he thought was a gun. "I grabbed it and it felt soft," Carroll said during his first public statements about the shooting last year that has strained race relations in New York City. ". . . It was just a wallet."
During cross examination, however, Carroll admitted that Diallo really didn't closely resemble the description of the man they were pursuing.
In the most crucial day of the closely watched case, Carroll and his partner Edward McMellon took the witness stand to testify in their own behalf, with credibility the crucial issue.
Prosecutors charge the four members of the elite street crime unit--Carroll, 36, McMellon, 27, Kenneth Boss, 28, and Richard Murphy, 27--acted recklessly and with depraved indifference when they killed Diallo, a 22-year-old street vendor, in a burst of gunfire.
The policemen have mounted a joint defense, and Carroll was the first to testify in Albany, N.Y., where the case was moved after an appellate panel ruled the officers could not receive a fair trial in the Bronx because of publicity.
Carroll said on the night of Feb. 4, 1999, the officers became suspicious when they glimpsed Diallo, who resembled a rapist the unit was trying to apprehend, acting suspiciously in front of a building that turned out to be his home.
"It appeared he stepped backward into the vestibule as we were approaching, as if he didn't want to be seen," he testified.
Carroll stressed that McMellon displayed his badge and identified himself as a police officer when he got out of the car.
"He said, 'Police, City of New York. Can we have a word with you?' " the witness said.
Carroll said that Diallo walked backward and started reaching into his right pocket.
"He's frantically opening, trying to get through that door. He's looking at us, looking at us," Carroll said. "I'm saying, 'Police. Show me your hands, Show me your hands.' . . . He just didn't want to listen."
Carroll said that seconds later Diallo pulled "the object" from his pocket.
"All I could see was the top. It looked like the slide of a black [gun], my prior experience and training . . . dictated to me that this person was pulling a gun," he told the court.
"I just said, 'Gun! He's got a gun!' "
"Believing he was about to fire the gun at my partner, I fired my weapon," Carroll said, beginning to sob on the witness stand.
"The noise was incredibly loud, almost like a cannon going off. There was flashing. It appeared to me there was a muzzle flash coming from the object that the individual held in his hand," he continued.
". . . At that point, I thought that the individual was wearing a bulletproof vest, that he just shot my partner and he didn't want to go to jail," Carroll testified.
"There was splintering of wood. There was sparks, and it appeared to be glass coming from where the individual was standing."
Both Carroll and McMellon said they emptied their magazines--firing 16 shots each--at Diallo.
As the officers spoke, members of their families sat in the courtroom offering encouragement. Also present were some of Diallo's relatives, who have been attending the trial regularly.
McMellon testified that after he identified himself as a police officer he also saw Diallo pull something out of his pocket. He said he ran after the suspect and took two quick leaps to the top of the front steps leading into the building.
"In my mind, he was fleeing. I wanted to close the gap," the officer said. ". . . I wanted to physically grab him and stop him from doing what he was doing."
McMellon said that Diallo was "frantically" tugging at something and then he saw him turn, and "I could see an object. I thought it was a gun. I screamed and I fired."
The police officer testified he tried to back out of the vestibule as fast as he could and then fell backward down the steps, firing his weapon as he was falling.
"I didn't want to die," McMellon said.
He continued to pull the trigger from the ground. "There was no time to get up," he said.
Later, prosecutor Donald Levin asked what was so suspicious about Diallo standing on his front stoop.
"Looking up and down the block is not a crime, is it officer?" the assistant district attorney asked.
"No, it is not," Carroll said.
Hammering away at McMellon, the prosecutor asked whether it occurred to him that Diallo might not have spoken English.
"At that moment, it did not occur to me," McMellon said.
"Did you hear a gunshot before you fired your gun at Mr. Diallo?" the prosecutor asked.
"No," the police officer said.
"Did you see a muzzle flash before you fired your first shot at Mr. Diallo?"
"No," McMellon replied. ". . . All I could see was Mr. Diallo standing there with that gun, what I thought was a gun."
The prosecution rested its case last week. One prosecution witness testified she saw the officers shoot Diallo without warning and continue firing after he hit the ground. There was also testimony of a pause in the shooting, which prosecutors could argue meant willfulness on the part of the officers when the shooting resumed.
The other officers are expected to take the stand today.
Times researcher Lynette Ferdinand assisted in this report.