Feds meet with family of Sean Bell

November 18, 2008 4:12:29 PM PST
Nearly two years after an unarmed man was killed by police in a 50-shot barrage hours before his wedding, his family and their lawyers met privately with federal prosecutors on Tuesday to discuss a possible civil rights case against the shooters. Afterward, the parents and former fiancee of Sean Bell declined to discuss the sit-down in detail. But they said they were encouraged by what they heard, even though a federal case is considered a long-shot.

"There's a very serious and determined investigation going on," said one of the family's attorneys, Michael Hardy.

U.S. Attorney Benton Campbell refused to comment on the closed-door meeting at his Brooklyn office, which lasted about an hour.

Bell, a 23-year-old black man, was killed and two of his friends were seriously injured outside a seedy strip club in Queens in 2006 as they were leaving his bachelor party by car. The officers - undercover detectives investigating reports of prostitution at the club - said they opened fire because they thought one of the men was reaching for a gun. No weapon was found.

The shooting sparked community outrage and accusations that the New York Police Department was too quick to use excessive force against minorities.

At a non-jury trial in April, a judge acquitted three of the shooters of state charges that included manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment. The Justice Department said at the time that it would review the incident, but has yet to announce whether it will bring its own case.

Prosecutors "work on their own timetable, but at the same time they made it clear they're not sitting around doing nothing," Hardy said.

The fiancee, Nicole Paultre Bell, told reporters that she sought to remind federal authorities there was a "human side" to the case.

"Sean had a life that was taken unjustly," said Paultre Bell, who has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and police. "We knew Sean personally, and he was a great person."

The Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement that the meeting was long overdue, and was "hopefully a sign that the federal government has begun to seriously look into the egregious denial of the civil rights of Sean Bell."

Police officials have said they are awaiting a decision by federal authorities before pursuing pending administrative charges against the three detectives and one other shooter who wasn't charged in the criminal case. The four are accused of violating guidelines for firing weapons. In addition, the NYPD has accused a lieutenant of failing to properly plan the undercover operation, and two more detectives of failing to properly process the crime scene.

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