NYC police acquitted of killing groom-to-be
Three New York City police officers were acquitted Friday of killing an unarmed groom-to-be in a hail of 50 bullets on his wedding day.
Moments after Judge Arthur Cooperman handed down his ruling, shouts of "no" and "murderers" erupted from the crowds of spectators gathered inside and outside the state supreme court in Queens. Some outside began to cry and tussle with police officers guarding the scene, while inside the courtroom the victim's fiancée fled the room and the victim's mother wept.
Sean Bell, 23, was killed outside a Queens strip club where he had a last-minute bachelor party in the early morning hours of Nov. 25, 2006. He was supposed to get married later that day.
Two of Bell's friends were injured in the shooting.
Three undercover detectives were charged in the case, which became one of New York's most closely watched. It sparked protests and raised questions about police firepower, undercover tactics and racial issues, as the victim was black — although two of the officers are black as well.
The judge, who came to his decision after a seven-week trial, said the police officers' version of events was the most credible.
"The people have not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that each defendant was not justified" in firing their guns, he said.
'I'd like to say sorry': officer
Detectives Michael Oliver, who fired 31 rounds, and Gescard Isnora, who fired 11, faced manslaughter charges that could have carried a sentence of 25 years in prison.
Det. Marc Cooper, who fired four shots, was charged with reckless endangerment, with a penalty of up to one year behind bars. Two other police shooters weren't charged.
"I'd like to say sorry to the Bell family for the tragedy," Cooper said as he, Oliver and Isnora briefly addressed the media after the verdict was read.
The defence had argued that Bell and his friends were drunken thugs who the officers believed were armed and dangerous. But prosecutors maintained that the victims, who were not armed, had been minding their own business, and that the officers were disorganized, frightened and trigger-happy.
After the verdict was read, district attorney Richard Brown said he accepts the ruling, but hopes the case will force New York police to improve their undercover policies, their tactics and their relationship with the community. The force is already studying the matter, and some changes have been made.
"It's clear to me, based upon evidence presented to the court, that much more needs to be done," Brown said. "It's now up to us to do everything within our power to make certain that we learn from that which occurred, and to do whatever we can to make certain it does not happen again."
He said the U.S. attorney general is now considering whether federal charges will be laid in the case.
Police commissioner Raymond Kelly said the officers could still face internal disciplinary action.
Bloomberg calls for peace
While lawmakers decide what course of action to take, Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged New Yorkers who oppose Friday's ruling to react with peace.
"There are no winners in a trial like this," he said, according to the New York Times. "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."
"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."
The case has drawn comparisons to other New York police shootings, such as the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant who was shot 41 times after police mistook his wallet for a gun. Those officers were also acquitted, sparking a massive street protest that led to hundreds of arrests.
The Bell case has so far been more muted, although Bell's supporters, including civil rights champion Rev. Al Sharpton, have held rallies demanding that the officers be held accountable.
Sharpton said more rallies could be staged, possibly on Saturday, although he urged protesters to refrain from violence.
"We intend to pursue this case," he said. "This verdict is one round down, but the fight is far from over."
Bell's family has not spoken publicly about the verdict yet.
Victim rammed police van, officer testified
The detectives, complaining that pretrial publicity had unfairly depicted them as cold-blooded killers, opted to have their case ruled on by a judge instead of a jury.
The officers didn't take the stand in the trial, although the judge had access to their earlier testimony before a grand jury. Testimony from Bell's two injured friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, was also read out in court.
Both sides described the chaos that erupted in the moments leading up to Bell's death.
Two of the detectives, Hispolito Sanchez and Isnora, said they were doing an undercover investigation into allegations of prostitution at the Kalua Cabaret strip club when they saw Bell and his friends taunt a man outside the building at 4 a.m. When the man touched his pocket as though he was carrying a gun, the officers say, they heard Bell's friend Guzman ask someone to get him his own gun. Guzman has denied this.
Isnora called for backup, warning his supervisor that things were going to get heated. He said he clipped his police badge to his collar, drew his gun and ordered Bell and his friends to halt as they climbed into their car, but the men didn't listen.
Isnora said that Bell then rammed his vehicle into a police car, and Guzman made a sudden move as though he was reaching for a gun.
"I yelled 'gun!' and fired," Isnora said. "In my mind, I knew [Guzman] had a gun."
But Bell's friends said the detectives never identified themselves as police officers. Guzman said Isnora "appeared out of nowhere" with a drawn gun and started firing.
"That's all there was — gunfire," he said. "There wasn't [anything] else."
The officers said that in the chaos of the sound of their guns firing, car tires squealing and glass breaking, they thought they were under fire, but it turned out Bell and his friends didn't have a gun in their car.
With files from the Associated Press