Judge receives Sean Bell case

Judge will now decides fates of three officers
April 30, 2008 8:41:37 AM PDT
The prosecution and defense wrapped up their cases with closing arguments Monday in the trial of three officers charged in the Sean Bell shooting. Now, the judge will decide the officers' fates.Defense attorneys said the three detectives charged in the 50-shot killing of an unarmed groom-to-be were framed by lying street thugs, including two surviving victims seeking millions of dollars from the city.

Prosecutors in the Sean Bell slaying built their case on the unreliable testimony of Bell's friends - "a parade of convicted felons, crack dealers and men who were not strangers to weapons," said James Culleton, lawyer for one of the shooters.

Bell, 23, was killed outside a Queens topless bar, the Kalua Cabaret, where he had a bachelor party on Nov. 25, 2006 - his wedding day.

Detectives Gescard Isnora and Michael Oliver have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter in what prosecutors have portrayed as a botched undercover operation by trigger-happy officers. The third undercover investigator, Marc Cooper, pleaded not guilty to reckless endangerment.

The case is being heard by a judge instead of a jury. He has said he will announce a verdict on April 25.

Several friends of Bell who attended his party testified that police accounts of an argument outside the club, where police were investigating prostitution allegations, were exaggerated. Police say they overheard one of them, Joseph Guzman, say, "Yo, go get my gun."

Defense attorney Paul Martin portrayed Guzman as "the catalyst of the event. He's the reason we're here today." He recalled how Guzman, a burly ex-convict, grew combative on the witness stand during cross-examination.

"He was the only person in front of Club Kalua ... who had the testicular fortitude to go get a gun, come back and take somebody out," Martin said.

In grand jury testimony, Isnora said that he decided to follow Bell, Guzman and Benefield to their car because he believed they were going to retrieve a gun.

Guzman denied saying anything about a gun. He and another passenger in Bell's car, Trent Benefield, also testified that they never heard the officers yell warnings before opening fire, and tried to drive away because they feared for their lives.

Isnora gave a different account: When he confronted the men, he only resorted to deadly force after Bell bumped him with the car and smashed into an unmarked police van, and after he spotted Guzman make a sudden move as though he were going for a gun.

"He used enormous restraint," a third defense attorney, Anthony Ricco, told the judge.

The defense cited testimony by other witnesses, including a police shooter who wasn't charged, that they heard yelling and shouting before the gunfire erupted.

Isnora fired 11 times, Oliver 31 times and Cooper five times, all believing amid the chaos that they were under fire from the car, their lawyers said. Two other officers who fired shots were not charged.

"Gunfire all about, windows blown out - what was he to believe?" Martin said of Cooper. "He responded appropriately."

Guzman and Benefield, who both survived serious injuries, have filed $50 million lawsuits against the city.