Over the past two weeks, as a Queens grand jury wrestled with whether to indict the five cops who fired 50 shots into Sean Bell’s car, two very opposing forces were at work.
On the one hand, grand juries are known to be so obsequious to prosecutors, they will, as the saying goes, indict a lunch staple. And in this case, prosecutors had plenty of ammunition: the November 25 shooting that resulted in Bell’s death and the wounding of two friends – all three unarmed – had occurred on the day Bell was to be married.
But there was an equal and opposite compulsion in the room. It’s notoriously difficult to indict police officers for what they do in their line of work. And in this case, some observers felt police supporters were leaving nothing to chance.
For instance, the day after the first of the five officers’ grand jury appearance, the lead story wasn’t about his long-awaited testimony but about a murder-for-hire plot against the police commissioner that was rooted in the Bell case.
“RAY KELLY DEATH PLOT,” screamed the
New York Post’s front page. “A Rikers inmate offered $15,000 to have Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s head chopped off as payback for the NYPD shooting of Sean Bell…”
It didn’t escape the notice of the Bell camp that the sensational story was released a full nine days after a detective posing as a hit man taped David Brown, 47, making the solicitation. Did it really take police that long to figure out that Brown was schizophrenic and had no money to pay an assassin? Michael Hardy, attorney for Bell’s fiancé Nicole Paultre Bell and Bell’s two wounded friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, doesn’t think so.
“Anyone who talked to this guy had to come to the conclusion that he’s crazy. This is a non-relevant guy,” Hardy tells the
Voice. “Why would you release the story when any good police work would have assessed this as a non-threat?”
Paul Browne, spokesman for the NYPD, says the time lag occurred because there was “considerable, continuing investigative work to be done after the face-to-face.” They knew, for example, that Brown spoke with at least one other inmate, and detectives had to be thorough. Reading anything more into the timing of the story is just “conspiracy crap,” Browne wrote in an e-mail.
Another curious twist: defense attorney James Culleton found a way to spin the testimony of Mike Oliver, the officer who fired 31 times, by making sure the last testimony jurors heard was his handpicked firearms expert, Gene Maloney. Now retired, Maloney had been part of NYPD “shooting teams” that determined the controversial shootings of Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond and Gideon Busch all were within police guidelines.
Citing unnamed sources, the
Daily News reported that Maloney said “cops are told not to stop shooting until the threat is over,” directly contradicting what Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the day after the shooting: Police are trained to fire three times then pause and evaluate the threat.
Mark Heller, the former attorney for the family of Timothy Stansbury, the unarmed 19-year-old who was killed on a Brooklyn rooftop by a cop in 2004, says expert opinion is stuff for trials, not grand juries. “It certainly may be appropriate information to provide, but in an open court where people can be cross-examined so the jurors don’t just get one side,” Heller says.
Heller’s thoughts here are shaped by having watched the officer who shot Stansbury, Richard Neri, escape indictment after a Brooklyn grand jury heard expert testimony from an NYPD training officer that supported Neri’s tearful accidental discharge claim.
Meanwhile, as the Bell grand jury wrapped up its three months of work last week, all hell broke loose for the NYPD. First, an off-duty detective was shot and wounded inside a Brooklyn club by a man killed by another off-duty cop coming to the rescue. Three days later, an undercover officer was shot twice by a man who other officers killed. That same night, a police officer was slashed in the head in a subway station.
Then two days later, gunless auxiliary police officers, Nicholas Pekearo, 28, and Yevgeniy Marshalik, 19, were shot and killed on Sullivan Street in the West Village by a deranged man who had just murdered a pizzeria worker. As the incidents snowballed, the stories inevitably invoked the Bell case while emphasizing the danger and unpredictability of law enforcement. Grand jurors are not supposed to read or listen to news stories about their case, but last week every major story seemed related to it.
Then came a final plot twist for the Sean Bell grand jury – the manifestation of a surprise witness who allegedly could finally give flesh to the “fourth man” theory.
Hours after the grand jury began deliberating on the officers’ fates last Wednesday, a man walked into the 115th Precinct in Jackson Heights saying he had information on the Bell case.
Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, was later quoted as saying that the man had seen “a black male fire one shot, maybe two, and run from the scene, possibly into a building.” From the start, there had been unsubstantiated rumors about the possibility of a so-called fourth man who ran off with the gun police believed they saw inside Bell’s car.
The mystery witness was rushed into the grand jury roomThursday. But a law enforcement source tells the
Voice Palladino exaggerated. The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the witness, a porter at the nearby AirTran building, testified he heard someone say “police department” then heard a shot followed by another shot. That’s it.
Though the witness ultimately didn’t provide the Perry Mason moment police had hoped for, his sudden appearance sent some community activists and politicians into a tizzy.
“It appears to me there may be unnamed parties who are eager to throw a monkey wrench into the gears of justice,” Queens Congressman Gregory Meeks announced. “This last-minute episode has all the earmarks of a provocation and a maneuver to delay, if not disrupt, the grand jury process.”
Apparently, the disruptions had little effect. On Friday, a decision was reached. Brown tried to embargo it until Monday morning, but within a half hour it had been leaked.
Oliver and undercover detective Gescard Isnora, who fired 11 times, were indicted for manslaughter, and detective Marc Cooper, who shot four times, was indicted for reckless endangerment. Two other officers, who fired four other shots, were not indicted.
At the Baisley Park Gardens houses in Jamaica where Bell hung out and Guzman and Benefield live, folks broke out the champagne after hearing the news Friday. But that may be the extent of the celebrating. If indicting cops is difficult, convicting them is even tougher.
Officer Bryan Conroy, who was convicted in December 2005 of criminally negligent homicide for shooting Ousmane Zongo after a chase inside a Chelsea storage facility, is the rare exception. But even in that case the judge ultimately gave Conroy only five years probation, saying the real problem was lack of police training.
Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former prosecutor, says the biggest obstacle the Bell prosecutors have to overcome is, absent obvious malice, the fact that “most people don’t want police officers to be criminally prosecuted.
“You have people at work, doing their jobs and it appears there’s an absence of malice,” O’Donnell says. “It’s a mistake; it’s not malice. So you’re asking a jury to unanimously find beyond a reasonable doubt that their actions were so unreasonable that they should be punished criminally. It’s virtually impossible.”