By Sean Gardiner and Michael Clancy
The three detectives charged in the shooting death of Sean Bell, gunned down outside Club Kalua in a hail of 50 NYPD bullets on the eve of his wedding, walked out of court free men this morning as Justice Arthur J. Cooperman declared them not guilty on all counts.
Noting the unreliability of prosecution witnesses, through their renunciations and inconsistent statements, past criminal convictions, demeanor while testifying and motivation to lie on the stand, Cooperman acquitted the cops following a bench trial, saying “These factors played a significant part in the people’s ability to prosecute their case and had the effect of eviscerating the credibility of the people’s witnesses….at times the testimony just didn’t make sense. “
The judge noted that the Detectives Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper’ actions didn’t rise to the level of criminal act and noted that any “questions of carelessness and incompetence must be left to other forums,” referring to possible departmental charges the detectives still may face.
In the aftermath, the Justice Department has said it will conduct a probe to see if any civil rights violations occurred and Rev. Al Shaprton has promised hit-and-run demonstrations, such as sit ins and civil disobedience arrests, at unnamed locations across the city starting tomorrow.
In the run up to Cooperman giving his verdict, the courtroom was ringed with 17 court officers, who remained standing in front of the pews, while another 11 jammed the aisle separating supporters of Bell, filling the pews on the right side, and the backers of the cops, seated to the left. Before the judge entered the audience was asked to refrain from making any outbursts and remain sitting after the verdict until Cooperman had exited the court.
Entering shortly after 9 a.m., the 74-year-old judge began laying out his reasoning when the toddler daughter of Trent Benefield, who was shot while in the car with Bell that night, began yelling out what sounded like, “Mama.” Cooperman abruptly stopped and glared at the child’s mother who was holding her.
“I’m not going to continue unless the child is removed,” Cooperman said, causing the child’s mother to slink out of the courtroom with the daughter.
Shortly after, the judge finished up his reasoning and announced he was acquitting the officers on all charges. Ignoring the pre-verdict instructions, Nicole Paultre Bell, Bell’s fiancee and widow, stood up immediately and walked out of the courtroom. Rows of Bell supporters followed her. “Unadulterated bullshit,” one man said on his way out. In a second row pew, Bell’s father, dressed all in white, buried his face while shaking his head as Bell’s mother broke into tears while being consoled by a family member next to him.
About one hundred people—guarded by what looked like three times as many cops—gathered outside State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens as police and news choppers buzzed overhead. PBA president Pat Lynch was the first to react to reporters, saying this “was a case where there is no winner and no losers, we still had a death that occurred… we still had officers who had to deal with that death.”
As an angry crowd nearly drowned him out with screams of “Murderers,” Lynch added that the verdict sent a message to New York City police officers that says “you will get fairness” which was important to officers out on patrol because “there is never a script… we have to deal with circumstances as they come.”
A short time later, Bell’s family and friends—including the Rev. Al Sharpton, attorney Sanford Rubenstein and shooting victim Joseph Guzman who wore a soft cast on his right leg and a white T-shirt emblazoned with a sparkly silver “Sean Bell’s Boys” logo—walked past the assembled media without comment and marched onto Queens Boulevard, shutting down traffic for a short time.
Carrying banners that said “50 Shots” and “Justice for Sean Bell,” many Bell supporters chanted “Racist Cops You Can’t Hide, We Charge You with Genocide” a brief scuffle broke out when a Bell supporter took exception to a cameraman getting too close.
Calling for possible federal civil rights charges for the involved officers, Leroy Gadsden, of the Jamaica chapter of the NAACP, told WNBC Channel 4. “This is court is bankrupt when it comes to people of color.”
Hours later, the Department of Justice announced that its Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney’s Office will “conduct an independent review of the facts and circumstances” surrounding the Nov. 25, 2006 killing of Bell who was unarmed when shot while sitting in his car along with Guzman and Benefield. Bell’s two friends and his relatives have filed a lawsuit against the city seeking $50 million in damages.
After the potentially explosive verdict was given, Mayor Michael Bloomberg conveniently attended an unscheduled ribbon-cutting ceremony about a mile away from where Bell was shot to announce the opening of a job center in Jamaica. “There are no winners in a trial like this,” the mayor said. “An innocent man lost his life, a bride lost her groom, two daughters lost their father, and a mother and a father lost their son. No verdict could ever end the grief that those who knew and loved Sean Bell suffer. Judge Cooperman’s responsibility, however, was to decide the case based on the evidence presented in the courtroom. America is a nation of laws, and though not everyone will agree with the verdicts and opinions issued by the courts, we accept their authority. Today’s decision is no different. There will be opportunities for peaceful dissent and potentially for further legal recourse—those are the rights we enjoy in a democratic nation. We don’t expect violence or law-breaking, nor is there any place for it. We have come too far as society—and as a City—to be dragged back to those days.
“When I spoke with Nicole Paultre Bell on the steps of City Hall this week, I told her that while we can’t bring back the man that she was in love with, we can and will build and make things better. She replied ‘Yes, and make sure it doesn’t happen again,’ and I agreed, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what we have to do.’ All of us have a responsibility to improve our neighborhoods and our City, and we can only do that by working together, respecting each other, and doing everything possible to prevent future tragedies and injustices.”
Curiously, Bloomberg announced that one of the ways they hoped to instill public trust in the NYPD was by bolstering the staff at the Civilian Complaint Review Board so that now “complaints are dealt with swiftly and efficiently.” What Bloomberg didn’t mention was that since bolster the CCRB last year the NYPD has “swiftly and efficiently” been dumping a record number of the agency’s substantiated cases.
A week into the trial, in “many legal observers were puzzled by some of the strategies employed by prosecutors working for Queens DA Richard Brown.
“A week into the trial of three cops in the Sean Bell case, the prosecutors’ theory that two of the cops were “acting in concert” when the bridegroom was gunned down in a hail of police bullets is striking a sour note with some observers.
For Judge Arthur Cooperman, who’s hearing the case without a jury, to convict on the top counts of first- and second-degree manslaughter, he’d have to believe “that they planned it and they all had the same mind-set,” says veteran defense attorney Marvyn Kornberg. “And that’s ludicrous.”
If anything, the prosecutors undercut their own theory during the first week of the trial by stressing the lack of planning by the accused officers’ unit on the night of the shooting and the chaos that followed.”
Assistant District Attorney Charlie Testagrossa, the lead attorney who has been a prosecutor for 31 years, called this case, “possibly the most difficult case I’ve ever had to try.”
He added, “we can’t say we’re not disappointed with the verdict but we have a tremendous amount of respect for Judge Coopoerman.”
District Attorney Richard Brown called their case, “as thorough and complete a presentation of all available evidence as I have ever seen. In all, some 60 individuals testified over a 28 day period—and more than 900 exhibits were introduced into evidence. The trial transcript alone runs 5,400 pages. Both sides had their day in court.”
Brown said that the case has “raised important issues about current law enforcement practices,” especially when it comes to undercover operations. Some steps have been taken to improve undercover recruiting, training and supervision and have implemented an alcohol test requirement for all officers involved in a shooting, Brown said, “but it is clear that more needs to be done.”
In “Guns Gone Wild,” a Voice examination of the frequency with which cops fire their weapons, and NYPD tactics in the wake of the Bell slaying, some observers questioned the efficacy of deploying details of detectives to stake out a two-bit strip club in Jamaica, Queens.
“Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD cop and prosecutor who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, calls such initiatives “overpolicing.” “What are these cops doing in a strip bar in Jamaica at four in the morning listening to trash talk?” O’Donnell says. “You’ve got alcohol and drugs being used and then you have cops bringing firearms and deadly force into the picture. So you have trouble. . . . We’ve got to stop overpolicing everything.”
After the verdict, the family traveled to Long Island to visit Sean Bell’s gravesite. Bell was laid to rest on December 1, 2006 in service marked with both with great sadness and anger. It was followed by days of protest throughout the city.
Afterward, Sharpton, speaking on his radio show, promised large-scale displays of civil disobedience of the type that followed the acquittals of four police officers charged in the February 1999 shooting death of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed immigrant gunned down in the doorstep of his Bronx home when officers mistook the wallet he was pulling from his back pocket for a gun.
“Even people with criminal backgrounds have civil rights,” he said.