Not all that long after the scapegoating show trials of the Salem witch-hunts, the Founding Fathers understood that when the courts are enlisted to exact moral vengeance, the law becomes an instrument of tyranny. The law, they resolved, should not swing wildly with each case but should evolve steadily over time. Unfortunately, though, the separation of what's moral from what's legal can sometimes produce stunning lapses in justice.

One such lapse became clear recently as 2,500 protesters marched through the streets of New York shouting, "Justice!" The protest was ignited by news that four police officers were acquitted of all charges in the killing of Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old street vendor who had emigrated from Africa. The implication of the acquittal was that the officers were acting within the parameters of the law when they discharged 41 bullets at the unarmed man.

For many people, it's difficult to come to terms with the fact that Diallo died for the most tragic reason: that is, for no reason at all. Just as hard to swallow is the fact that no one will be held accountable for this terrible injustice.

According to court testimony, last February 4 four police officers confronted Diallo in the vestibule of his building because he matched the description of an armed rapist. The officers then displayed their badges and identified themselves as police, demanding that Diallo halt in his doorway. Instead, a nervous-seeming Diallo pulled a black wallet form his pocket, prompting an officer to yell, "Gun!" In moments, all four officers opened fire.

To insinuate that this was murder is pathologically irresponsible--such an argument implies that New York police officers blithely draw their weapons, as if getting into a gunfight were the fun part of their day. Legally, these officers could not be found anything but innocent of murder.

This brutal and senseless killing resulted in a verdict that was legally, though not morally, justifiable.

At the same time, the officers were clearly negligent. They mistook Diallo for a rapist; they mistook his wallet for a gun. They were wrong, and now he's dead. It's the very definition of absurd injustice that Diallo's life should end in a meaningless instant for the "crime" of standing in the doorway of his home. Someone, it seems, should be held accountable.

Yet the law allows police officers a certain amount of discretion when discharging their weapons. The law takes into account that they have to make snap decisions that could have life-and-death repercussions. In short, the law acknowledges that officers must be allowed to trust their instincts, the reflexes gained through personal experience and observation.

It can be agonizing when, as in the Diallo case, the law does not mesh with justice. After the trial, one juror said, almost regretfully, that the prosecution "presented very little we could go on. Whether that was their fault or there wasn't anything else there, I don't know. But that's why it came out the way it did."

This brutal and senseless killing resulted in a verdict that was legally, though not morally, justifiable. Sadly, there will be no vindication until all four officers step forward and admit that, in one tragic instant, they snuffed out an entire life. There will be no vindication until the officers acknowledge the absence of moral justice in the Diallo verdict. Most important, there will be no vindication until they speak publicly about the instinct and training that guided their brief violent outburst.

In doing so, they can achieve something greater than vindication--they can help rebuild the structure that keeps us huddled together as a community.

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