Thug Life: The Unsympathetic Sean Bell Witness and the “Harlem Lawyer”


Yesterday’s testimony in the Sean Bell “50 Shots” trial by Bell pal Joseph Guzman was a fireworks display that allowed the media to unleash all their favorite ghetto tropes, including drugs, the “stop snitchin'” culture and “the one who made it out.” Guzman may have been testifying for the prosecution, but as the lead in the Daily News‘ coverage notes, “but yesterday, Joseph Guzman was on trial.” The Post‘s Andrea Peyser calls Guzman “one scary dude” while the headline for her column observes, “Hard to see this thug as a victim.”

And it is hard. How do you empathize with Guzman, who was convicted of selling crack near a school, who also racked up a conviction for a gunpoint robbery? Perhaps hearing the story of how he was shot 16 times in Sean Bell’s Nissan Altima may do it, but even that is complicated. Guzman testified that he told Bell, “I love you, son” as he lay dying, and that Bell responded, “I love you, too.” Earlier in the trial, the medical examiner claimed that was impossible, as Bell’s vocal cords had been severed in the shooting. Everything about Guzman you read in the papers seems to have an, “but…” attached to it.

“Disrespecting authority” is the route the Post takes with today’s coverage, as the headline screams, “BELL BUDDY MOCKS COP FROM STAND” with the subhead, “Shooting survivor calls detective ‘kid.'” The Daily News accentuates Guzman’s “rage” as he took the stand, as his cross-examination by defense lawyer Paul Martin included the accusation that Guzman was a snitch, a claim, according to the News, “that’s fighting words on the mean streets of Jamaica.” Between this exchange and an off-hand remark about Guzman not marrying the mother of his children, the papers report the courtroom gallery became raucous. Queens Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cooperman told the court, “Folks, this is a courtroom, we’re not at home watching TV.”

But the character in today’s coverage that seems the most interesting is defense attorney Anthony Ricco, the “Harlem lawyer,” as he’s called in the News coverage and the “African-American lawyer” described in Peyser’s column. Why is Ricco’s race so important in this coverage? Because it allows easy shorthand to illustrate Ricco as one who made it out of the ghetto. The News emphasizes this trope in Nicole Bode and Corky Siemaszko’s article on yesterday’s proceedings, as they describe one particularly heated exchange between Ricco and Guzman (bolding mine):

“I bet you were kind of tough out there at Club Kalua that night, Ricco said, slipping into the street slang of his native Harlem. “I bet you wasn’t paying ‘that kid’ no mind, ‘Show your hands’. You was doing want you wanted to do, which is what you’re doing right now.”

Denis Hamill continues the “local boy makes good” portrayal of Ricco with his description of him as a “Harlem-bred, African-American defense lawyer with the Italian name” and his referral to the “ghetto street idioms” Ricco used in his cross of Guzman. The Post continues on the “respect authority” theme with its portrayal of Ricco, which concentrates on Ricco’s asking Guzman why he kept referring to Detective Gescard Isnora as “kid.” Guzman himself admitted on the stand, “I don’t have to respect nobody on that side as a man.” This “belligerent attitude,” according to the Post, made Ricco ask the judge to clear the courtroom, as this was when the gallery became raucous, as if the members were watching TV. Ricco may be from the streets of Harlem, but he definitely can negotiate his way around the court system with finesse. And this is exactly the type of liminal character that the media love to highlight.