NYPD detectives acquitted in groom's killing

Judge handed down verdict after 9 a.m.
QUEENS Justice Arthur Cooperman delivered the verdict in a Queens courtroom packed with spectators, including victim Sean Bell's fiancee and parents, as at least 200 people gathered outside the building.

The officers, complaining that pretrial publicity had unfairly painted them as cold-blooded killers, opted to have the judge decide the case rather than a jury.

Bell, a 23-year-old black man, was killed as more than 50 shots were fired outside a seedy strip club in Queens on Nov. 25, 2006 - his wedding day - as he was leaving his bachelor party with two friends.

The verdict provoked an outpouring of emotions: Bell's fiancee immediately walked out of the room, and his mother wept. Officer Michael Oliver, who fired the most shots, also cried.

Mayor Bloomberg released the following statement. "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.

The mayor went on to say, "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."

Outside the courthouse, which was surrounded by scores of police officers, many in the crowd began weeping after hearing the verdict. Others were enraged, swearing and screaming "Murderers! Murderers!" or "KKK!"

Officers Michael Oliver, 36, and Gescard Isnora, 29, stood trial for manslaughter while Officer Marc Cooper, 40, was charged only with reckless endangerment. Two other shooters weren't charged. Oliver squeezed off 31 shots; Isnora fired 11 rounds; and Cooper shot four times.

A conviction on manslaughter could have brought up to 25 years in prison; the penalty for reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor, is a year behind bars.

Before announcing the verdict, the judge made a statement indicating that the police officers' version of events was more credible than that of the victims.

"The people have not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that each defendant was not justified" in shooting the victims, Cooperman said.

About the version of events offered by the victims and other prosecution witnesses, he said, "At times the testimony just didn't make sense."

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly stepped in front of the cameras just after 9:30 a.m. but said very little. Kelly said, "It's inappropriate for me to comment on the verdict," because any disciplinary action that may be involved "may come to me."

He said he didn't anticipate any violence related to the verdicts.

The NYPD Benevolant Association President Patrick J. Lynch spoke soon after Kelly, saying "Today we're grateful that (the judge) ruled on the evidence in this case. With this case, there's no winners, there's no losers."

Lynch went on to say "We still have police officers who have to live with the fact that there's been a death in their case," but said that the ruling showed that when NYPD officers make a decision that results in a death, "You will get fairness. And that's what NYPD Officers need every day."

Lynch said, "We have to deal with circumstances as they come," and "We are grateful for this outcome."

Rev. Al Sharpton was seen with members of the Bell family marching down Queens Blvd. after leaving the courthouse. The crowd in the streets followed as Sharpton marched. Chants were heard "Acquittal means fight back."

The case brought back painful memories of other NYPD shootings, such as the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo - an African immigrant who was gunned down in a hail of 41 bullets by police officers who mistook his wallet for a gun. The acquittal of the officers in that case created a storm of protest, with hundreds arrested after taking to the streets in demonstration.

The mood surrounding this case has been muted by comparison, although Bell's fiancee, parents and their supporters, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, have held rallies demanding that the officers - two of whom are black - be held accountable.

Shouts of "No!" and "Not guilty!" erupted in the crowd outside the courthouse as word of the verdict began to spread. Some people by the barricades appeared to weep on each other's shoulders.

The nearly two-month trial was marked by deeply divergent accounts on the part of defense lawyers and prosecutors.

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 aggressors.

In his closing arguments, prosecutor Charles Testagrossa alluded to the starkly different views of the shooting.

"If you are a police officer or sympathetic to police officers, the defendants are tragic heroes and the victims are thugs," he said. "If you are friends of the victims, then the defendants are murderers."

None of the officers took the witness stand in his own defense.

Instead, Cooperman heard transcripts of the officers testifying before a grand jury, saying they believed they had good reason to use deadly force. The judge also heard testimony from Bell's two injured companions, who insisted the maelstrom erupted without warning.

Both sides were consistent on one point: The utter chaos surrounding the last moments of Bell's life.

"It happened so quick," Isnora in his grand jury testimony. "It was like the last thing I ever wanted to do."

Bell's companions - Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman - also offered dramatic testimony about the episode. Benefield and Guzman were both wounded; Guzman still has four bullets lodged in his body.

Referring to Isnora, Guzman said, "This dude is shooting like he's crazy, like he's out of his mind."

The victims and shooters were set on a fateful collision course by a pair of innocuous decisions: Bell's to have a last-minute bachelor party at Kalua Cabaret, and the undercover detectives' to investigate reports of prostitution at the club.

The party, according to Bell's friends, was boozy but uneventful. But the undercovers were jumpy.

"I felt uncomfortable," testified Detective Hispolito "Hip" Sanchez, who with Isnora posed as a patron that night. "I just didn't feel good about it."

As the club closed around 4 a.m., Sanchez and Isnora claimed they overheard Bell and his friends first flirt with women, then taunt a stranger who responded by putting his right hand in his pocket as if he had a gun. Guzman, they testified, said, "Yo, go get my gun" - something Bell's friends denied.

Isnora said he decided to arm himself, call for backup - "It's getting hot," he told his supervisor - and tail Bell, Guzman and Benefield as they went around the corner and got into Bell's car. He claimed that after warning the men to halt, Bell pulled away, bumped him and rammed an unmarked police van that converged on the scene with Oliver at the wheel.

The detective also alleged that Guzman made a sudden move as if he were reaching for a gun.

"I yelled 'Gun!' and fired," he said. "In my mind, I knew (Guzman) had a gun."

Benefield and Guzman testified that there were no orders. Instead, Guzman said, Isnora "appeared out of nowhere" with a gun drawn and shot him in the shoulder - the first of 16 shots to enter his body.

"That's all there was - gunfire," he said. "There wasn't nothing else."

With tires screeching, glass breaking and bullets flying, the officers claimed that they believed they were the ones under fire. Oliver responded by emptying his semiautomatic pistol, reloading, and emptying it again, as the supervisor dived for cover.

The truth emerged when the smoke cleared: There was no weapon inside Bell's blood-splattered car.

After an ambulance was summoned, the shaken detectives gathered in the middle of the street - a scene the supervisor described as "surreal."

"We were all in shock," he said. "We thanked God that none of us were hit and we were going home."

In closing arguments, defense attorneys accused prosecutors of building their case on the unreliable testimony of Bell's friends. They noted that Guzman and Benefield both have criminal records and $50 million lawsuits against the city.

The pair were part of "a parade of convicted felons, crack dealers and men who were not strangers to weapons," said James Culleton, Oliver's attorney.

A lawyer for Isnora, Anthony Ricco, portrayed his client as an unjustly vilified hero who had exercised "enormous restraint" before pulling the trigger. But Testagrossa depicted the detectives as cowboys who wildly overreacted to some harmless trash talk. He suggested Oliver was the worst offender.

"Thirty-one shots," the prosecutor said. "Thirty-one separate pulls of the trigger. ... Thirty-one separate decisions to use deadly force. Thirty-one opportunities to pause and reassess whether continuing firing was necessary.

"Thirty-one opportunities to save an innocent life."

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