Photo: New York City, April 25, 2008
Fiancee says justice system let her down after NYPD shooting
VERENA DOBNIK, AP, April 26, 2008
NEW YORK - The fiancee of an unarmed man shot to death by police on his wedding day said Saturday that "the justice system let me down" when the three detectives were acquitted of all charges in his killing. "April 25, 2008: They killed Sean all over again," Nicole Paultre Bell softly told hundreds of people gathered at the headquarters of the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. "That's what it felt like to us."
Paultre Bell, in her first public remarks since storming out of a courtroom Friday after the NYPD detectives were cleared in 23-year-old Sean Bell's killing, said she would seek another decision in the case.
"I'm still praying for justice because it's not over," she said.
Joseph Guzman, who was wounded in the barrage of 50 police gunshots outside a Queens strip club on Bell's wedding day in 2006, also spoke for the first time since Friday's verdict to supporters at Sharpton's Harlem offices.
"We've got a long fight," he said. "We're still in it. ... We're going to struggle. We're going to get through."
Sharpton lambasted the judge who acquitted the detectives in the killing of Bell and wounding of his two friends, saying a jury should been seated to decide guilt or innocence.
"If people are on the public payroll, doing their public duty, they should be required to face a public jury," Sharpton said. The officers had opted to have the judge instead of a jury decide the case
Sharpton later promised to "shut the city down" with organized civil disobedience. "Shut it down! Shut it down!" supporters chanted.
In his ruling Friday, Justice Arthur Cooperman said inconsistent testimony, courtroom demeanor and rap sheets of the prosecution witnesses — mainly Bell's friends — "had the effect of eviscerating" their credibility.
"At times, the testimony just didn't make sense," the judge said.
The verdict elicited gasps as well as tears of joy and sorrow. Detective Michael Oliver, who fired 31 of the shots, wept at the defense table, while Bell's mother cried in the packed courtroom. Shouts of "Murderers! Murderers!" and "KKK!" rang out outside the courthouse.
Protests followed later in the day, and police said two demonstrators were arrested near the site of the shooting Friday night. One was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge, the other on a charge of obstructing governmental administration, police said.
Oliver and Gescard Isnora were acquitted of charges that included manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment. The third officer, Marc Cooper, faced lesser charges.
After the verdict, the officers gave brief statements without taking questions. "I'd like to say sorry to the Bell family for the tragedy," an emotional Cooper said.
Bell was killed outside the strip club as he was leaving his bachelor party. The officers — undercover detectives who were investigating reports of prostitution at the club — said they thought one of the men had a gun.
The slaying heightened tensions in the city and stoked long-standing allegations of racism and excessive use of force by police, even though two of the officers charged are black.
The officers complained that pretrial publicity had unfairly painted them as cold-blooded killers.
After the verdict, the U.S. attorney's office said it would look into the case and "take appropriate action if the evidence indicates a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil rights statutes."
In addition, relatives of the victims have sued the city. The officers, who had been on paid leave, also face possible departmental charges that could result in their firing.
The case brought back painful memories of other New York police shootings, such as the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant who was gunned down in a barrage of 41 bullets by officers who mistook his wallet for a gun. The acquittal of the officers in that case led to days of protests, with hundreds arrested.
The defense in the two-month trial painted the victims as drunken thugs who the officers believed were armed and dangerous. Prosecutors sought to convince the judge that the victims had been minding their own business, and that the officers were inept, trigger-happy cowboys.
Bell's wounded companions — Guzman and Trent Benefield — both testified.
Guzman, a burly ex-convict who still has four police bullets lodged in his body, grew combative during cross-examination and said of Isnora: "This dude is shooting like he's crazy, like he's out of his mind."
None of the officers took the stand. Instead, the judge heard transcripts of the officers telling a grand jury that they believed they had good reason to use deadly force.
The officers said that when the club closed around 4 a.m., they heard Guzman say "Yo, go get my gun" — something Bell's friends denied.
Isnora claimed that after he warned the men to halt, Bell pulled away in his car, bumped him and rammed an unmarked police van. The detective also said Guzman made a sudden move as if he were reaching for a gun.
Benefield and Guzman testified that there were no orders from the police.
No weapon was found in Bell's blood-splattered, bullet-riddled car.
Associated Press writer Tom Hays contributed to this report.