Federal charges in Bell shooting?

April 29, 2008 3:46:55 AM PDT
A high-ranking congressman spoke with Sean Bell's family and local community leaders Monday. Could the three detectives who were just acquitted now face federal charges?Eyewitness News' N.J. Burkett has the story.

Liverpool Street in Jamaica, Queens, is where NYPD officers fired 50 shots and killed Sean Bell. Last week, a judge ruled it was careless, but not criminal. Now, some prominent lawmakers say that's not good enough.

Three days after the verdict acquitting the three NYPD officers, many of New York's most prominent elected officials came together to talk strategy. They met with the surviving victims of the shooting and relatives of Sean Bell.

They also hosted the powerful chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, Congressman John Conyers of Michigan.

The three detectives were acquitted last Friday on all charges after Justice Arthur Cooperman ruled the prosecution failed to prove its case, that, in other words, all 50 shots were justified.

The controversial verdict shocked the city, leaving New Yorkers divided between those who demanded criminal convictions and a less vocal contingent who supported the judge's decision to acquit the detectives.

The U.S. Justice Department is already reviewing the case, but several legal experts say a federal trial is highly unlikely.

"I don't think they're overplaying their hand," former prosectuor Adam Perlmutter told Eyewitness News on Monday. "But I don't really think they're going to get that far."

Perlmutter says the Sean Bell shooting was, at worst, reckless, unlike the intentional stationhouse assault on Abner Louima in Brooklyn or the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, in which two officers were later convicted on federal charges after being acquitted in state court.

"I think in order for a civil rights case to have happened here," Perlmutter said, "the timeline would have had to have been slowed down considerably so that the officers' actions could be looked at as intentional actions as opposed to just grossly negligent actions brought on by bad training and bad policing."

Congressman Conyers had a 30-minute meeting before heading to the scene of the shooting Monday evening. In the afternoon rain, Conyers stood outside the Kalua Cabaret before walking over to where the shots were fired.

"This is an important moment in the history of the criminal justice system in America," Conyers, a Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told reporters.

The detectives union and its lawyers have requested a meeting with Conyers, who has agreed, said Ken Frydman, the union's spokesman. The meeting hadn't been scheduled by late Monday.

"The American people deserve to know the facts of the case rather than just one side of it," Frydman said.

Meanwhile, New York Governor David Paterson says he's somewhat surprised by the acquittal of the officers.

Paterson says the verdict surprised him because of the number of shots fired at Bell and his two friends.

The governor says he understands why some are upset, but says the judge's verdict must be accepted.

"It is the way our criminal justice system works," he said.

Paterson encouraged people who are dissatisfied with the outcome of the trial to wait for investigations by the New York Police Department and federal authorities to be completed. "There may still be some redress in that case," he said.