YORK — The police officers wept in joy and choked up with emotion after
hearing that they had been acquitted in the 50-shot killing of an
unarmed man on his wedding day.
For them, it was a
rush of relief after 17 agonizing months of facing the burden of
criminal prosecution and the prospect of a long stint in prison.
But their worries are far from over.
The Justice Department is still considering whether to bring a federal
case against the officers, and a civil lawsuit still looms. And civil
rights leaders have no intention of letting interest in the case fizzle.
The Rev. Al Sharpton last Saturday blasted the judge who ruled in the
Sean Bell case and said a jury should have been empaneled.
“If people are on the public payroll, doing their public duty, they
should be required to face a public jury,” Sharpton said to cheers and
applause at his National Action Network headquarters.
Relatives of the man killed and two men wounded in the 2006 shooting
sat in rows behind him. Sharpton said the victims were wrongly
portrayed as dishonest.
“These three families have had to endure and have had to abide through
the most, in my judgment, scandalous denigration of victims that I’ve
seen in my lifetime,” he said.
Sharpton last Friday said he planned to organize “economic withdrawal”
and “civil disobedience” that could involve going to jail, marching on
Wall Street, and at police headquarters.
“We strategically know how to stop the city so people stand still and
realize that you do not have the right to shoot down unarmed, innocent
civilians,” Sharpton told a crowd at the National Action Network
office. “This city is going to deal with the blood of Sean Bell.”
Sharpton made his proclamation hours after three undercover detectives were acquitted of all charges in Bell’s death.
In announcing his verdict, Justice Arthur Cooperman said that the
inconsistent testimony, courtroom demeanor and rap sheets of the
prosecution witnesses — mainly Bell’s friends — “had the effect of
eviscerating” their credibility.
“At times, the testimony just didn’t make sense,” the judge said.
The verdict elicited gasps as well as tears of joy and sorrow.
Detective Michael Oliver, who fired 31 of the shots, wept at the
defense table, while Bell’s mother cried in the packed courtroom.
Shouts of “Murderers! Murderers!” and “KKK!” rang out outside the
Protests followed later in the day, and police said two demonstrators
were arrested near the site of the shooting that night. One was
arrested on a disorderly conduct charge, the other on a charge of
obstructing governmental administration, police said.
Oliver and Gescard Isnora were acquitted of charges that included
manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment. The third officer,
Marc Cooper, faced lesser charges.
The officers later appeared at a news conference with the leader of
their union, offering brief statements and taking no questions.
“I’d like to say sorry to the Bell family for the tragedy,” an emotional Cooper said.
Bell’s fiancée did not comment after the verdict. Trent Benefield, a
friend of Bell’s who was wounded in the shooting, tearfully denounced
the judge’s decision as unfair.
“They should have gotten what they deserve,” he told the Daily News.
Bell, a 23-year-old black man, was killed outside a strip club in
Queens in 2006 as he was leaving his bachelor party. The officers —
undercover detectives who were investigating reports of prostitution at
the club — said they thought one of the men had a gun.
The slaying heightened tensions in the city and stoked long-standing
allegations of racism and excessive use of force on the part of New
York City’s police, even though two of the officers charged are black.
Police had assigned extra officers to the courthouse and had
helicopters in the air to help deal with any unrest last Friday. But
within an hour, the angry, weeping crowd of about 200 people outside
the courthouse had scattered, and no arrests were made.
The officers had complained that pretrial publicity had unfairly
painted them as cold-blooded killers. They opted to have the judge
instead of a jury decide the case, a strategy that appeared to pay off.
After the verdict, the U.S. attorney’s office said it would look into
the case and “take appropriate action if the evidence indicates a
prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil rights statutes.”
In addition, relatives of the victims have sued the city, and those
cases carry the potential for multimillion-dollar payouts.
Also, the officers, who had been on paid leave, still face possible
departmental charges that could result in their firing.
Sharpton, an advocate for Bell’s family, demanded a federal investigation.
“This verdict is one round down, but the fight is far from over,” the civil rights leader said on his radio show.
The case brought back painful memories of other New York police
shootings, such as the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an African
immigrant who was gunned down in a barrage of 41 bullets by police
officers who mistook his wallet for a gun. The acquittal of the
officers in that case led to days of protests, with hundreds arrested.
“An ugly pattern is emerging in New York,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said
after the verdict was announced in the Bell case. “This was a massacre.
This was not a shootout. And the U.S. attorney general must give
America the assurance that we all have equal protection under the law.”
The nearly two-month trial was marked by deeply divergent accounts of the night.
The defense painted the victims as drunken thugs who the officers
believed were armed and dangerous. Prosecutors sought to convince the
judge that the victims had been minding their own business, and that
the officers were inept, trigger-happy cowboys.
Bell’s companions — Benefield and Joseph Guzman — were both wounded;
Guzman still has four bullets lodged in his body. Both testified.
Guzman, a burly ex-convict, grew combative during cross-examination and
said of Isnora: “This dude is shooting like he’s crazy, like he’s out
of his mind.”
None of the officers took the stand. Instead, the judge heard
transcripts of the officers telling a grand jury that they believed
they had good reason to use deadly force.
The officers said that as the club closed around 4 a.m., they heard
Guzman say, “Yo, go get my gun” — something Bell’s friends denied.
Isnora claimed that after he warned the men to halt, Bell pulled away
in his car, bumped him and rammed an unmarked police van that converged
on the scene. The detective also said Guzman made a sudden move as if
he were reaching for a gun.
Benefield and Guzman testified that there were no orders from the police.
With tires screeching, glass breaking and bullets flying, the officers
said they believed they were the ones under fire. Oliver responded by
emptying his semiautomatic pistol, reloading, and emptying it again.
Isnora fired 11 rounds, and Cooper four. Two other officers who fired
When the smoke had cleared, there was no weapon inside Bell’s blood-splattered car.