NEW YORK April 25, 2008 -- A New York City judge cleared three police officers today in the 50-shot fusillade that killed an unarmed man on his wedding day, triggering outrage and vows of protests that will "close the city down."
Judge Arthur Cooperman ruled in the nonjury trial that the officers' account of what happened outside a Queens strip club in November 2006 was more credible than the story told by witnesses and wounded friends of the dead man.
Cooperman also said that Bell's friends who survived the shooting may have been motivated in part by the payout they stand to receive in a multimillion-dollar civil suit filed against the city.
What both sides agreed on was that in a brief and lethal moment of chaos outside Club Kalua, Sean Bell, 23, was gunned down by police. The cops claim they believed he had a gun and ignored their orders to stop.
Two men wounded with Bell insisted the cops never said a word and just opened fire.
Officers Michael Oliver, 36, and Gescard Isnora, 29, were cleared of manslaughter charges while Officer Marc Cooper, 40, was cleared of reckless endangerment.
Oliver fired 31 shots, Isnora fired 11 rounds and Cooper shot four times. A manslaughter conviction could have carried a maximum of 25 years in prison. None of the three defendants testified in their own defense.
Cooperman delivered the verdict to a courthouse packed with Bell supporters -- including fiancee Nicole Paultre Bell, his parents and the Rev. Al Sharpton -- as well as supporters of the three police officers. Outside, an estimated 200 people waited for the news in a trial that thrust the New York Police Department under a spotlight for possible excessive force.
Nicole Bell immediately left the courtroom. Bell's mother began to cry.
After the verdict was read, a large crowd of people streamed from the courthouse, with angry Bell supporters screaming "Murderers!" and "KKK." Police guided the throng through the courthouse grounds. Bell's family members then traveled from the court directly to his grave.
'Justice for Sean Bell'
Bell supporters have rallied for him since his death, demanding that the police department be held accountable and touting buttons and signs that read "Justice for Sean Bell" during a two-month trial that headlined the city's news for weeks.
New York police were braced for violence in case the officers were exonerated.
In 1999, hundreds were arrested after a jury found officers not guilty in the killing of Amadou Diallo. The unarmed African immigrant was gunned down in a hail of 41 bullets by police officers who mistook his wallet for a gun.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg acknowledged that "not everyone will agree with the verdicts" and expressed sympathy for Bell's family.
"There are no winners in a trial like this. 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," the mayor said.
Shortly after Cooperman's verdict was delivered, the Justice Department announced that it would review the case to determine whether the officers should be prosecuted for allegedly violating Bell's civil rights.
Sharpton and the officers dueled over the airwaves in the early afternoon.
Sharpton angrily opened his radio show today by calling the judge's decision not a "miscarriage ... but an abortion of justice."
He called on Bell supporters to rally across the city Saturday and vowed they would "close the city down" as they attempt to put pressure on the Justice Department to prosecute the officers.
"They want us to act crazy," Sharpton warned, urging protesters to resist violence, but acknowledging there would likely be arrests. "We are going to be strategic. We are going to close the city down in a nonviolent way."
At the same time, the three officers and their union held a news conference that was broadcast live where Michael Palladino, president of the New York City's Detective Endowment Association, said Sharpton's "abortion" crack was "despicable."
Amid all the anger, Cooper, one of the officers cleared, stepped up to thank his family, union and lawyers. While struggling to remain composed, Cooper also said, "I'd like to say sorry to the Bell family for the tragedy."
The officers sought a nonjury trial after police complained that pretrial publicity had characterized them in a negative light. While allegations of excessive force were the main issue, racial tension surrounded the case from the day of the shooting. The victim was black, but two of the police officers, Isnora and Cooper, are also black. Oliver is white.
"The people have not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that each defendant was not justified" in firing, Cooperman said inside the courtroom.
During the trial the prosecution and defense laid out starkly different accounts of what happened in the street early that morning.
The prosecution failed to convince the judge that Bell and friends Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, who were wounded in the confrontation, did nothing to provoke aggressive officers engaged in a sting operation at the strip club.
Some of the officers involved claimed that they heard Bell talking about a gun during a dust-up with a stranger as the club closed around 4 a.m. Isnora called for backup, telling his supervisors the situation was "getting hot."
Isnora followed Bell to his car and backup officers told Bell to stop as he and his two friends tried to drive away, the officers said. Bell bumped Isnora with the car and rammed an unmarked police van. Guzman then made some type of sudden move that convinced Isnora he had a gun.
The cops started shooting and amid all the noise and shattering glass, believed they were facing gunfire themselves.
When the firing stopped, there was no firearm to recover from Bell's blood-splattered car.
Benefield and Guzman, Bell's companions, testified that the shooting erupted out of nowhere. On the stand, Guzman called Isnora a "dude" and described him "shooting like he's crazy, like he's out of his mind."
Benefield and Guzman denied that the police identified themselves or issued any orders to them before they began firing.
Bell supporters challenged the judge's decision.
"We have not heard what these men did that caused police to act as though they were 'America's Most Wanted,'" Leroy Gadsden, of the New York City NAACP, said. "We haven't heard any of these men having a gun threatening anybody."
Gadsden said that the NAACP will continue to seek justice for Bell.
"This court unfortunately is bankrupt when it comes to justice for the people of color," he said.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who prosecuted the case, said that he accepted Cooperman's verdict and urged "fair-minded people" to do the same.
Brown said that the officers' legal problems aren't over and that he will cooperate with the U.S. Attorney's Office as it considers a civil rights case against the officers. He added that federal prosecutors have asked the New York police commissioner to wait on administrative decisions until they decide how to proceed federally.
Former federal prosecutor Kenneth Thompson said the severity of the 50-shot barrage, coupled with community outrage, could persuade the feds to try the cops for violating Bell's civil rights.
In December 1994, Officer Francis Livoti was acquitted in a bench trial of killing Anthony Baez, but was later found guilty in a federal trial and sentenced to 71/2 years in prison.
A civil suit involving Bell's death has also been filed.
"Criminal responsibility is a lot different than civil responsibility," Brown said. "These defendants and the other officers involved, they still have a number of hurdles to cross before someone says they've been fully exonerated."
New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said during a post-verdict press briefing that he understood some people would be dissatisfied, but said his department did not expect violence to follow the decision.
Palladino said the ability to choose a judge rather than a jury to rule on the case was key to the officers being cleared given the emotional nature of the case.
"Even the most reasonable juror would have been swayed by the antics outside the courthouse," he said, adding that Sharpton's influence was undercut without a jury.
"Taking the judge not the jury kind of took the wind out of Mr. Sharpton's sails," Palladino said. "That's why he didn't come to court every day. There was no jury for him to play to."
The Associated Press contributed to this report