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26 Apr 2008 06:52
A judge in New York on Friday cleared three detectives on all charges involved in the killing of Sean Bell, the bridegroom who died in a hail of 50 police bullets outside a nightclub hours before his wedding.
Outside the crowded courtroom, where demonstrators carried signs reading “50 shots isn’t justice”, there were shouts, tears and anger as the verdict was pronounced. Some protesters shouted “murderers”.
The verdict was met with quiet tears from Bell’s mother.
Police blocked off the steps of the courthouse with metal barricades, and hustled the three detectives away through a side door.
Bell (23) had just left his stag party at a club in Jamaica, Queens, when he was shot and killed on November 25 2006.
Two of his friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, were also wounded as the three plainclothed police detectives opened fire on Bell’s car.
All three of the men in the car were unarmed and the shooting—which recalled a 1999 episode in which an unarmed immigrant, Amadou Diallo, was shot dead by police—brought fierce criticism of the detectives.
But after a seven-week trial, Judge Arthur Cooperman ruled that the three police officers, Michael Oliver (36) Gescard Isnora (29) and Marc Cooper (40) bore no criminal responsibility for the death of Bell or the wounding of his friends.
Oliver and Isnora, who were charged with manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment, had faced a maximum of 25 years in prison.
Cooper had faced a single charge of reckless endangerment.
The three had elected to be tried before a judge, rather than a jury.
In his verdict, the judge said that he simply did not believe the testimony of many of the prosecution’s witnesses, including Bell’s two wounded companions on that night.
Bell’s parents sat in silence as the judge gave his decision, but his fiancee, Nicole Paultre Bell, walked out. Other spectators erupted in disbelief. “Did he just say, not guilty?” one woman was reported as saying.
Outside the court, Leroy Gadsen, who had been monitoring the trial for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, was outraged at the verdict.
“We haven’t heard of any of these people having a gun or threatening anybody and yet we hear the verdict not guilty,” he said. “This case is not about justice. It is about the ability of the police to act above the law.”
However, the New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who had been critical of the shooting, said that the judge had followed his duty to decide the case on evidence presented in his courtroom.
“There are no winners in a trial like this,” he said in a statement. “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 of those who knew and loved Sean Bell.”
The events of that November night began when Bell and his friends got into an argument outside the club.
The party had no idea that the Club Kahlua was under police surveillance as part of an investigation into prostitution. Oliver, Isnora and Cooper had recently come on shift when the argument erupted. A number of witnesses testified that they heard talk of guns during the argument, and that Guzman had said: “Yo, go get my gun.”
The detectives decided to follow Bell and his friends out to their car. They told the court they feared that talk of guns during the argument could lead to a shooting. According to Isnora, he then identified himself as a police detective, clipping his badge on his collar and shouting out: “Police”.
But Guzman and Benefield said they heard no warning and had no idea that Isnora was with the police when he walked up to their car with his gun drawn. They say the gunfire erupted without any warning.
The police, for their part, claimed that Guzman may have helped to provoke the shooting by urging Bell to drive away. The police claim that they opened fire only after Bell nudged Isnora with his car, pushing him into an unmarked police van.
Oliver then fired at Bell’s car 31 times. Isnora fired 11 shots and Cooper four. - guardian.co.uk Â
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