Sean Bell shooting trial gets underway

Detectives fatally shot Bell in 2006
February 28, 2008 3:45:49 AM PST
Three NYPD officers went on trial Monday in the death of an unarmed man killed in a barrage of 50 bullets on his wedding day, with prosecutors recreating the chaos of that fateful night as they sought to portray him as the victim of reckless, trigger-happy detectives.Lawyers for the officers didn't dispute the degree of firepower in the now-infamous killing of 23-year-old Sean Bell. But they argued that the shooting was not excessive and that it was justified because their clients had ample reason to believe Bell and his friends were armed and dangerous as they left a Queens strip club in the early hours of November 25.

The trial occurred in a packed courtroom that lacked the theatrics of most high-profile trials, largely because the case is being heard by a judge and not a jury.

But it did become emotional at times. The woman Bell was to marry, Nicole Paultre-Bell, wept as she testified about being summoned that night to the hospital where she learned Bell was dead. Clutching a tissue, she needed about a minute to compose herself as she relived the night.

Detectives Gescard Isnora and Michael Oliver are charged with manslaughter, while Detective Marc Cooper is on trial for reckless endangerment. Oliver fired 31 shots, including the one that killed Bell. Isnora squeezed off 11 shots, and Cooper fired four times.

Assistant District Attorney Charles Testagrossa told the judge that once the evidence is heard, "It will be clear that what happened cannot be explained away as a mere accident or mistake. It can only be characterized as criminal."

Isnora's attorney, Anthony Ricco, said there was evidence that Bell was drunk and "out of control" as he left the strip club after his bachelor party. Witnesses overheard Bell exchange curses with another patron, and heard Bell's friend Joseph Guzman say to someone, "Go get my gat," slang for gun, Ricco said.

The lawyer said Bell, at Guzman's urging, "tried to run over" Isnora with his car after the officers confronted the members of the bachelor party and identified themselves as police. The lawyer described the car as a "deadly weapon" and "human battering ram."

"When there is a confluence of alcohol and ignorance, there's always a tragedy," Ricco said.

But Testagrossa said that Oliver would have found there was no threat if he had "paused to reassess" while firing 31 of the shots. He emptied his clip, reloaded, and shot again.

Defense lawyer James Culleton estimated that it took as little as nine seconds for Oliver to fire the 31 rounds from his semiautomatic pistol - even with reloading - leaving him no time to reassess.

Culleton said Oliver saw Bell's car trying to flee, then heard Isnora yell, "He's got a gun! He's got a gun!"

The defense lawyer said Oliver will testify that during the chaos, he saw Guzman starting to lift his arms. Culleton said Oliver was convinced that if he hesitated, "He'd be looking down the barrel of a gun and he'd be a dead man."

Investigators found no gun at the scene.

Outside the courthouse, a handful of noisy protesters chanted and banged on drums to show their support for the shooting victims and Bell's family.

Before going inside, Nicole Paultre-Bell, who legally took her fiance's name after his death, stopped to pray with Guzman, who was also shot that night, and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

In a soft voice, she mentioned their daughters, ages 5 and 1, and recounted how she met Bell in high school. He had a tattoo on his chest bearing her nickname - "Coli."

She was not cross-examined.

While comparisons to other police-involved shootings are inevitable, this trial wasn't expected to arouse the kind of outrage that occurred after the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant hit by 19 of the 41 shots fired by police in the Bronx. The officers were acquitted of criminal charges in a 2000 trial.

In the current case, the officers involved are Hispanic, black and white. Bell was black, as are the other victims.

Isnora's attorney dismissed the notion that race played a role in the shooting. The undercover team was "a diverse group. Nobody had an ax to grind."

Oliver and Isnora face up to 25 years in prison if convicted; Cooper faces up to one year on the lesser endangerment count. The case is being heard by state Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Cooperman, 74.

Outside the Courthouse

The steady pounding of a drum resonated Monday as the start of the trial of three undercover police detectives charged in Sean Bell's death brought their supporters and detractors to the steps of a courthouse.

A crowd of two dozen or so protesters chanted "Justice for Sean Bell" accompanied by a woman thumping an African-style drum. One of the protesters carried a sign saying "Wanted for Murder" on top of photos of the detectives on trial.

At the other end of the Queens block, a group of law enforcement labor officials arrived to show their support for Detectives Gescard Isnora, Michael Oliver and Marc Cooper, on trial for the November 2006 shooting of Bell. Isnora and Oliver are charged with manslaughter; Cooper is accused of reckless endangerment.

Bell was killed just hours before his wedding after leaving a bachelor party at a strip club. Two of his friends were injured in the incident, in which the officers fired 50 shots.

Police detectives union president Michael Palladino called the case a "political indictment" that never should have gotten this far.

"These officers were acting in good faith," he said.

Police union officials and defense lawyers have said the detectives believed Bell and his friends were going to get a gun; no weapon was found.

At the courthouse, those visiting Monday morning on their own business had to wait in long lines before being allowed in; the front steps had been barricaded to prevent people from using them.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader and an advocate for the shooting victims, paused in front of those barricades, along with Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre-Bell, to hear a short prayer before going into the courthouse. Their entrance was delayed as the police officers were ahead of them, still waiting to go in.

Coming out after opening statements, Sharpton said he or his representatives would be there for every day of the trial. He refuted the idea that he was making a racial issue out of the incident, pointing out that the officers are a multiracial group.

"We're not here against white cops. We're against wrong cops," he said. "This is about police brutality. This is not about race."

Bell was black.

The protesters also pledged to be there every day, to remind authorities that the case had not been forgotten.

"The main thing is the family needs support," said Shepard McDaniel. "The whole point is that if people are not there, on the watch and being participatory, then they can hide things."