NEW YORK – A last-minute witness testified Thursday before a grand jury that is considering whether to charge five police officers who unleashed a 50-bullet barrage that killed an unarmed man on his wedding day.
The testimony came as the city anxiously awaited the jury's decision on the fate of the five officers, who could face a range of charges in the Nov. 25 shooting that killed Sean Bell, 23, and wounded two of his friends.
The new witness was a 55-year-old man who went to a police station Wednesday to say he had been working on the night of the shooting near the strip club where it occurred, Detectives' Endowment Association President Michael Palladino said. Detectives at the station briefed Palladino.
The man told detectives he saw a man fire one or two shots at a police officer and then flee into a nearby building. The man told detectives he also heard police officers identifying themselves as police, Palladino said.
It is not known if the witness is considered credible, but his testimony could help the officers if he helps convince grand jurors that the police were justified in opening fire.
"I don't know where this man came from," Palladino told the AP. "But this guy could have a vital piece of information. ... The man told detectives that he didn't come forward sooner because he was afraid and overwhelmed."
The shooting stirred outrage around New York City and led to accusations of racism against the NYPD. Bell was black, as are the other victims; three of the officers are black, and two are white.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has acted as a spokesman for the family of Bell and the surviving victims, said at a news conference that there's something "suspect" about a witness suddenly turning up at a police station instead of going to the prosecutor.
"This story, as told, smells," Sharpton said. He added that he wanted the state attorney general to monitor the grand jury process.
Union representatives and lawyers for the officers have said their clients, who were conducting an undercover investigation at a strip club, believed Bell and his friends were going to retrieve a gun from a car after overhearing them argue with another patron. No gun was found.
A 23-person grand jury is hearing the case, and 12 of them need to vote for an indictment for charges to be brought. The panel includes eight blacks, seven whites, and a mix of Hispanics and Asians.
The grand jurors had been instructed to consider several charges: second-degree murder, manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide stemming from Bell's death; and attempted murder, assault or reckless endangerment in the wounding of two men.