NEW YORK – Three detectives were acquitted of all charges Friday in the 50-shot killing of an unarmed man on his wedding day after a trial that that put the NYPD at the center of another highly charged case involving allegations of excessive firepower.
Justice Arthur Cooperman delivered the verdict in a Queens courtroom packed with spectators, including victim Sean Bell's fiancee and parents, as hundreds of people gathered outside the building behind metal police barricades.
The verdict provoked an outpouring of emotions: Bell's fiancee immediately walked out of the room, and his mother wept. Officer Michael Oliver, who fired the most shots, also cried.
Outside the courthouse, which was protected by scores of police officers, many in the crowd began weeping. Others were enraged, swearing and screaming "Murderers! Murderers!" or "KKK!"
Before announcing the verdict, the judge read a statement saying the police officers' version of events was more credible than that of the victims.
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"The people have not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that each defendant was not justified" in shooting the victims, Cooperman said.
About the accounts offered by prosecution witnesses, he said, "At times the testimony just didn't make sense."
Bell, a 23-year-old black man, was killed in a hail of gunfire outside a seedy strip club in Queens on Nov. 25, 2006 — his wedding day — as he was leaving his bachelor party with two friends.
Oliver, 36, and Gescard Isnora, 29, were charged with manslaughter while Officer Marc Cooper, 40, was accused only of reckless endangerment. Two other shooters weren't charged. Oliver squeezed off 31 shots; Isnora fired 11 rounds; and Cooper shot four times.
A conviction on manslaughter could have brought up to 25 years in prison.
The verdict does not completely resolve issues surrounding the case. The federal government has been monitoring the trial and could bring its own case, though that's considered unlikely.
Relatives of the victims have sued the city, and those cases could either go to trial or be settled out of court with the potential of multimillion-dollar payouts.
The officers, who were taken off undercover duty and put on paid leave, also face possible administrative charges that could result in their dismissal.
While the judge found that the officers' response was not criminal, he added, "Questions of carelessness and incompetence must be left to other forums."
The case brought back painful memories of other NYPD shootings, such as the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo — an African immigrant who was gunned down in a hail of 41 bullets by police officers who mistook his wallet for a gun. The acquittal of the officers in that case created a storm of protest, with hundreds arrested after taking to the streets in demonstration.
The mood surrounding this case had been muted by comparison, although Bell's fiancee, parents and their supporters, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, have held rallies demanding that the officers — two of whom are black — be held accountable.
The officers, complaining that pretrial publicity had unfairly painted them as cold-blooded killers, opted to have the judge decide the case rather than a jury.
When the acquittals were announced, some people in the emotional crowd outside the courthouse scuffled with police. Bell's family and friends left the courthouse together and drove to the Long Island cemetery where the young man was buried. Sharpton planned to discuss the case later Friday on his radio show.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly acknowledged that some people were disappointed with the acquittals. "We don't anticipate violence, but we are prepared for any contingency," he said.
The nearly two-month trial was marked by deeply divergent accounts on the part of defense lawyers and prosecutors.
The defense 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.
In his closing arguments, prosecutor Charles Testagrossa alluded to the starkly different views of the shooting.
"If you are a police officer or sympathetic to police officers, the defendants are tragic heroes and the victims are thugs," he said. "If you are friends of the victims, then the defendants are murderers."
None of the officers took the witness stand in his own defense.
Instead, Cooperman heard transcripts of the officers testifying before a grand jury, saying they believed they had good reason to use deadly force. The judge also heard testimony from Bell's two injured companions, who insisted the maelstrom erupted without warning.
"It happened so quick," Isnora in his grand jury testimony. "It was like the last thing I ever wanted to do."
Bell's companions — Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman — also offered dramatic testimony about the episode. Benefield and Guzman were both wounded; Guzman still has four bullets lodged in his body.
Referring to Isnora, Guzman said, "This dude is shooting like he's crazy, like he's out of his mind."
The judge was clearly not swayed by the testimony of the prosecution's witnesses, citing their inconsistent statements, criminal records and "demeanor on the witness stand."
The tragedy unfolded outside the Kalua Cabaret, where the undercover officers were investigating reports of prostitution the night of Bell's boozy party.
As the club closed around 4 a.m., Sanchez and Isnora claimed they overheard Bell and his friends taunt a stranger, who responded by putting his right hand in his pocket as if he had a gun. Guzman, they testified, said, "Yo, go get my gun" — something Bell's friends denied.
Isnora said he decided to arm himself, call for backup and tail Bell, Guzman and Benefield as they went around the corner and got into Bell's car.
He claimed that after warning the men to halt, Bell pulled away, bumped him and rammed an unmarked police van that converged on the scene with Oliver at the wheel.
He said Guzman made a sudden move as if he were reaching for a gun.
Benefield and Guzman testified that there were no orders. Instead, Guzman said, Isnora "appeared out of nowhere" with a gun drawn and shot him in the shoulder — the first of 16 shots to enter his body.
With tires screeching, glass breaking and bullets flying, the officers claimed that they believed they were the ones under fire. Oliver responded by emptying his semiautomatic pistol, reloading, and emptying it again.
The truth emerged when the smoke cleared: There was no weapon inside Bell's blood-splattered car.
In closing arguments, defense attorneys accused prosecutors of building their case on the unreliable testimony of Bell's friends. They noted that Guzman and Benefield both have criminal records and $50 million lawsuits against the city.
The pair were part of "a parade of convicted felons, crack dealers and men who were not strangers to weapons," said James Culleton, Oliver's attorney.