ALBANY, N.Y. -- His head low and his voice halting, Officer Sean Carroll broke a year of public silence yesterday to describe how he led his three partners into the shooting of Amadou Diallo, who was struck by 19 of 41 police bullets fired at him as he stood, unarmed, in the lobby of his apartment building in the Bronx.
With Diallo's parents and Carroll's family in the front row of the courtroom, he choked out his testimony as he described his realization of his mistake.
Diallo "was still moving on the floor," Carroll said.
" 'Don't die. Don't die. Keep breathing,' " he remembered saying, but Diallo stopped breathing. "I was holding his hands, telling him to keep breathing."
In an attempt to resuscitate Diallo, Carroll lifted his shirt, he said. But seeing two bullet wounds in his abdomen, he decided he might do more harm than good. "I said, 'Oh, my God.' I just held his hand and rubbed his face and said, 'Please don't die.' "
The testimony of Carroll, who had never before spoken publicly about the incident, is the centerpiece of the defense in the trial of the four white New York City police officers charged with murder in the death of Diallo, a West African immigrant, on Feb. 4 last year.
The defense lawyers hope to humanize the officers by putting them on the witness stand to explain what happened, in their own words, and make the jury see the incident from their point of view.
The defense needs to convince the jury that the shooting was justified. Both Carroll and Officer Edward McMellon, who testified later in the day, said they thought Diallo had a gun, and that they feared for their lives.
The jurors, four blacks and eight whites, watched Carroll intently but showed no reaction as he testified. Diallo's mother, Kadiatou, hung her head and wept as Carroll described the final minutes of her son's life.
Carroll had been in the department's Street Crimes Unit for about two years when the Diallo shooting happened. He had fired his gun only once before, he said, in August 1997, when someone was shooting at him and another officer from the roof of an apartment building.
Diallo caught his attention, Carroll said, because he kept looking up and down the street from the stoop of his building, then retreating. He and the three other officers, in an unmarked car and plain clothes, stopped and got out of the car, with Carroll leading the way. Diallo, he said, fit the general description of a serial rapist they had been looking for who followed women into buildings.
Carroll and his partner, Officer Edward McMellon, both testified they mistook Diallo's leather wallet for a weapon and fired because they thought they would die.
"I heard Sean yell: 'He's got a gun!' " McMellon said. "I screamed [to Diallo], 'What are you doing?' and I fired my gun."
The other defendants, Officers Richard Murphy and Kenneth Boss, are to testify today.
The New York Daily News contributed to this article.