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 returned a verdict of not guilty on all counts.
Noting the unreliability of prosecution witnesses, through their renunciations and inconsistent statements, past criminal convictions and motivation to lie on on the stand, Cooperman acquitted the cops, 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. “
Referring to the departmental and even federal charges the officers may face, Cooperman continued “questions of carelessness and incompetence must be left to other forums.” As the judge finished his verdict, Nicole Paultre Bell, Bell’s fiancee and widow, stood up immediately and walked out of the courtroom as Bell’s father buried his head in hands sitting in silence as a friend comforted him.
About one hundred people—and 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.”
Bell’s family and friends—including shooting 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.
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” as one small scuffle broke out when a Bell supporter took exception to a reporter’s question.
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.”
In a prepared statement, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said ““There are no winners in a trial like this. 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.”
A week into the trial, in “The Sean Bell Curveball For Cops on Trial,” Sean Gardiner reported that 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.”
Bell was laid to rest on December 1, 2006 in service marked with both with great sadness and anger.
In “Guns Gone Wild,” an 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.”