THE SHADOW DRAGON
- Rep Power
Officers who shot Sean Bell aquitted of all charges
Tears of rage and joy flowed in a Queens courtroom Friday after the three cops who killed Sean Bell on his wedding day in a 50-bullet barrage were cleared of all charges.
Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre Bell, ignored the judge's orders and ran crying out of the courtroom while shooting survivor Trent Benefield broke down in tears.
Bell's parents, William and Valerie, sat in stunned silence while nearby an angry Bell supporter muttered, "This is b------t."
On the other side of the tense courtroom, Detective Michael Oliver appeared to be weeping with relief as he and the other acquitted detectives, Marc Cooper and Gescard Isnora, were hustled out through a back entrance.
Outside Queens Supreme Court, small scuffles broke out after Bell supporters walked out, some of them yelling "Murderers! Murderers!" and "KKK!" The hundreds of police officers standing watch quickly intervened and there were no other outbursts.
Justice Arthur Cooperman said he ruled in favor of the cops because the prosecution's case was undermined by "prior inconsistent statements." He said he didn't believe their star witnesses - Benefield and the other survivor, Joseph Guzman.
Benefield's testimony, in particular, "eviscerated the credibility of those prosecution witnesses," the judge said. "At times, the testimony just didn't make sense."
Before wrapping up its case, the defense played a tape of Benefield right after the shooting in which he said a man - who never identified himself as a detective - suddenly fired on Bell's car.
Prosecutors were perplexed at the time, but the defense insisted the tape contradicted what Benefield said in court and the judge agreed.
"His credibility was seriously impeached," he said.
Cooperman said Guzman's angry outbursts on the stand hurt the prosecution's case and he was swayed by defense arguments that both survivors might have tailored their testimony with an eye on winning a $50 million civil suit against the city.
Noting that Bell, Benefield and Guzman had criminal records, Cooperman questioned why they chose for Bell's bachelor party a strip club "known as venues that create criminal activity ... such as prostitution."
The cops who fatally shot Bell and wounded his buddies were doing an undercover sting operation at the Kalua Cabaret in Jamaica.
Cooperman insisted the court "did not view the victims or the NYPD as having been on trial here," but "the burden was on the people to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
Justification was used as a defense, so Cooperman said he had to consider the "mindset of the defendants, not the victims. What the victims did, was more important to resolve the issues at hand than what was in their minds."
Cooperman said he believed cops' claims that Guzman threatened to fetch a gun after Bell got into a squabble with a stranger outside the club.
"The confrontation that took place in front of the club was heated," the judge said. "The court finds another threat was made by Joseph Guzman."
Cooperman was silent on what many considered a key issue in the case - whether the undercover cops identified themselves before they opened fire.
"The incident lasted just seconds," the judge said. Despite "the unfortunate circumstances of their conduct, the actions of the defendants was not proved to be criminal."
Cooperman delivered his verdict in a stern voice, interrupting his monologue only once when Benefield's baby began crying in court. "I'm not going to continue unless the child is removed," he said.
Benefield's girlfriend, Nyla Page Walthrus, quickly walked out with the 16-month-old boy.
Mayor Bloomberg, who took a lot of heat from cop groups for saying the shooting appeared to be "excessive force," said after the verdict "there are no winners and losers in a trial like this...No verdict could ever end the grief that those who knew and loved Sean Bell suffer."
PBA President Pat Lynch said the cops will be haunted by the Bell shooting forever. "These police still have to live with the fact that there was death in this case," he said.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who mobilized hundreds of extra cops in case there was trouble, appealed for calm.
"Some people were disappointed with the verdict and we understand that," he said. "We don't anticipate violence but we are prepared for any contingencies.
Leroy Gadsden of the New York NAACP said the cops should have been convicted.
"Justice was not here today," Gadsden said. "This court, unfortunately, is bankrupt when it comes to justice for people of color."
The three cops still face NYPD disciplinary hearings. They remain on modified duty and have surrendered their guns.
Cooperman's verdict closed the book on a closely watched eight-week trial during which NYPD procedures were put under the microscope and the reputations of Bell and his two wounded buddies were dragged through the mud.
Oliver, who fired 31 times and reloaded once, and Isnora, who fired 11 times, had been charged with manslaughter, felony assault and reckless endangerment. They faced up to 25 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
Cooper, who fired four times, faced up to a year in jail if convicted of reckless endangerment.
None of the detectives testified, although their grand jury testimony was read out loud at the trial.
Bell's father said he would call on the feds to try the cops for violating his son's civil rights.
Bell, a 23-year-old father of two, was killed on Nov. 25, 2006 after his bachelor bash. Guzman and Benefield were badly wounded when the cops opened fire on Bell's car.
While the victims are all black, race didn't figured as prominently in the case because Cooper is also black, Isnora is half-black, and Oliver is of Lebanese descent.
Oliver 36, Isnora 29, and Cooper, 40, were part of an undercover police unit that was doing a prostitution sting at the Kalua Cabaret in Jamaica, Queens when they tragically crossed paths with Bell and his friends.
In reaching his verdict, Cooperman had to consider two simple yet competing arguments - either the police were reckless and overreacted or the victims were acting like thugs and brought it on themselves.
Defense lawyers said the detectives fired in self-defense because they believed Guzman was reaching for a gun when Isnora stepped in front of Bell's car and declared, "Police, show your hands!"
No gun was found.
Oliver's lawyer, James Culleton, accused prosecutors of building a case on the testimony of "a parade of convicted felons, crack dealers and men who were not strangers to weapons."
Prosecutors said Bell, Guzman and Benefield were the victims of poorly led, trigger-happy cops, who fired without identifying themselves first - and then came up with a shaky story about a confrontation between Bell and a mystery man outside the club to justify their excessive use of force.