3 Detectives Acquitted in Bell Shooting
Saturday, 26 April 2008

AP News

Three detectives were found not guilty Friday morning on all charges in the shooting death of Sean Bell, who died in a hail of 50 police bullets outside a club in Jamaica, Queens.

Justice Arthur J. Cooperman, who delivered the verdict, said many of the prosecution’s witnesses, including Mr. Bell’s friends and the two wounded victims, were simply not believable.

“At times, the testimony of those witnesses just didn’t make sense,” he said. His verdict prompted several supporters of Mr. Bell to storm out of the courtroom, and screams could be heard in the hallway moments later.

The three detectives — Gescard F. Isnora, Michael Oliver and Marc Cooper — were escorted out of a side doorway. Outside, a crowd gathered behind police barricades, occasionally shouting, amid a veritable sea of police officers.

The verdict comes 17 months to the day since the Nov. 25, 2006, shooting of Mr. Bell, 23, and his friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, outside the Club Kalua in Jamaica, Queens, hours before Mr. Bell was to be married. It was delivered in a packed courtroom and was heard by, among others, the slain man’s parents and his fiancée.

The seven-week trial, which ended April 14, was heard by Justice Cooperman in State Supreme Court in Queens after the defendants waived their right to a jury, a strategy some lawyers called risky at the time.

But it clearly paid off with Friday’s verdict. Before rendering his verdict, Justice Cooperman ran through a narrative of the evening, and concluded “the police response with respect to each defendant was not found to be criminal.”

“The people have not proved beyond a reasonable doubt” that each defendant was not justified in shooting, he said, before quickly saying the men were not guilty of all of the eight counts, five felonies and three misdemeanors, against them.

Mr. Bell’s family sat silently as Justice Cooperman spoke from the bench. Behind them, a woman was heard to ask, “Did he just say, ‘Not guilty?’ “ Roughly 30 court officers stood by, around the courtroom and in the aisles.

“There are no winners in a trial like this,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said later. “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.”

The mayor continued: “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.”

He added: “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.” Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, speaking at an event in Brooklyn, declined to comment on the verdict, saying that the officers could still face disciplinary action from the Police Department.

He did say, however, that the United States attorney’s office had asked him to delay such disciplinary action until it had decided whether or not to pursue federal charges against the officers.

He also said that the police were ready, should any unrest develop. “We have prepared, we have done some drills and some practice with appropriate units and personnel if there is any violence, but again, we don’t anticipate violence,” Mr. Kelly said.

“There have been no problems. Obviously there will be some people who are disappointed with the verdict. We understand that.” Detectives Isnora and Oliver had faced the most charges: first- and second-degree manslaughter, with a possible sentence of 25 years in prison; felony assault, first and second degree; and a misdemeanor, reckless endangerment, with a possible one-year sentence.

Detective Oliver also faces a second count of first-degree assault. Detective Cooper was charged only with two counts of reckless endangerment.

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