Detectives Michael Oliver, left, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper were accused in the 50-bullet barrage.
Sean Bell, his fiancee Nicole Paultre, and their daughter
By TOM HAYS, Associated Press
Three detectives were acquitted of all charges Friday in the 50-shot killing of an unarmed groom-to-be on his wedding day, a case that put the NYPD at the center of another dispute involving allegations of excessive firepower.
Scores of police officers surrounded the courthouse to guard against potential chaos, and as news of the verdict spread, many in the crowd began weeping. Others were enraged, swearing and screaming "Murderers! Murderers!" or "KKK!"
Inside the courtroom, spectators gasped. Sean Bell's fiancee immediately walked out of the room; his mother cried.
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 as he was leaving his bachelor party with two friends. The case ignited the emotions of people across the city and led to widespread protests among those who felt the officers used unnecessary force.
Officers Michael Oliver, 36, and Gescard Isnora, 29, stood trial for manslaughter while Officer Marc Cooper, 40, was charged with reckless endangerment. Two other shooters weren't charged. Oliver squeezed off 31 shots; Isnora fired 11 rounds; and Cooper shot four times.
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.
Though emotions ran high, there were no immediate problems outside the courthouse Friday, where many wore buttons with Bell's picture or held signs saying "Justice for Sean Bell." Some people approached police after the verdict was read, but they were held back and the jostling died down quickly.
William Hardgraves, 48, an electrician from Harlem, brought his 12-year-old son and 23-year-old daughter to hear the verdict. "It could have been my son, it could have been my daughter" shot like Bell that night, he said.
He didn't know what result he had expected.
"I hoped it would be different this time. They shot him 50 times," Hardgraves said. "But of course, it wasn't."
Justice Arthur Cooperman delivered the verdict in a packed Queens courtroom. 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.
Cooperman indicated that the police officers' version of events was more credible than the victims' version. "The people have not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that each defendant was not justified" in firing, he said.
The nearly two-month trial was marked by deeply divergent accounts of the night.
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 aggressors.
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.
Both sides were consistent on one point: The utter chaos surrounding the last moments of Bell's life.
"It happened so quick," Isnora said 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 victims and shooters were set on a fateful collision course by a pair of innocuous decisions: Bell's to have a last-minute bachelor party at Kalua Cabaret, and the undercover detectives' to investigate reports of prostitution at the club.
As the club closed around 4 a.m., Sanchez and Isnora claimed they overheard Bell and his friends first flirt with women, then 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 — "It's getting hot," he told his supervisor — 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.
The detective also alleged that Guzman made a sudden move as if he were reaching for a gun.
"I yelled 'Gun!' and fired," he said. "In my mind, I knew (Guzman) had 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.
"That's all there was — gunfire," he said. "There wasn't nothing else."
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, as the supervisor sought cover.
The truth emerged when the smoke cleared: There was no weapon inside Bell's blood-splattered car.
Sean Bell, his fiancee Nicole Paultre, and their daughter
* Story Highlights
* NEW: Case is tragic, but courts must be respected, New York mayor says
* NEW: NAACP official calls court 'bankrupt' as to justice for minorities
* Detectives acquitted of wrongdoing in Sean Bell shooting case
* Crowd angry but generally orderly; union chief praises verdict
From Deborah Feyerick
NEW YORK (CNN) -- A judge acquitted three New York Police Department detectives of all charges Friday morning in the shooting death of an unarmed man in a 50-bullet barrage, hours before he was to be married.
Detectives Michael Oliver and Gescard Isnora were found not guilty of charges of manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment in the death of Sean Bell, 23, and the wounding of two of his friends.
Detective Marc Cooper was acquitted of reckless endangerment.
Justice Arthur Cooperman said he found problems with the prosecution's case. He said some prosecution witnesses contradicted themselves, and he cited prior convictions and incarcerations of witnesses.
He also cited the demeanor of some witnesses on the stand.
As the judge read his decision, Nicole Paultre Bell -- Sean Bell's fiancee before his death -- ran from the courtroom, saying, "I've got to get out of here."
The announcement immediately sparked anger among some in the crowd outside the courthouse, but the protests were generally orderly. VideoWatch the commotion outside the courthouse »
One woman shouted at a black police officer, "How can you be proud to wear that uniform? Stand down! Stop working for the masters!" Sean Bell was black.
Patrick Lynch, president of the New York Police Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said "there's no winners, there's no losers" in the case.
"We still have a death that occurred. We still have police officers that have to live with the fact that there was a death involved in their case," Lynch said.
But, he added, the verdict assured police officers that they will be treated fairly in New York's courts.
"This case was not about justice," said Leroy Gadsden, chair of the police/community relations committee of the Jamaica Branch NAACP. "This case was about the police having a right to be above the law. If the law was in effect here, if the judge had followed the law truly, these officers would have been found guilty. ...
"This court, unfortunately, is bankrupt when it comes to justice for people of color." VideoWatch Gadsden denounce the verdict »
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been advising Bell's fiancee and family, left the courthouse about an hour after the verdict without making a public statement. He had called for calm Wednesday.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a statement saying, "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. No verdict could ever end the grief that those who knew and loved Sean Bell suffer."
However, he said, the legal system must be respected.
"America is a nation of laws, and though not everyone will agree with the verdicts and opinions issued by the courts, we accept their authority."
Bloomberg also said he had spoken briefly with Paultre Bell on Wednesday and agreed with her on the need to ensure similar incidents would not occur in the future.
Bell, 23, was killed just before dawn on his wedding day, November 25, 2006. He and several friends were winding up an all-night bachelor party at the Kalua Club in Queens, a strip club that was under investigation by a NYPD undercover unit looking into complaints of guns, drugs and prostitution.
Undercover detectives were inside the club, and plainclothes officers were stationed outside.
Witnesses said that about 4 a.m., closing time, as Bell and his friends left the club, an argument broke out. Believing that one of Bell's friends, Joseph Guzman, was going to get a gun from Bell's car, one of the undercover detectives followed the men and called for backup.
What happened next was at the heart of the trial, prosecuted by the assistant district attorney in Queens.
Bell, Guzman and Trent Benefield got into the car, with Bell at the wheel. The detectives drew their weapons, said Guzman and Benefield, who testified that they never heard the plainclothes detectives identify themselves as police.
Bell was in a panic to get away from the armed men, his friends testified.
But the detectives thought Bell was trying to run down one of them, according to their lawyers, believed that their lives were in danger and started shooting.
In a frantic 911 call, police can be heard saying, "Shots fired. Undercover units involved."
A total of 50 bullets were fired by five NYPD officers. Only three were charged with crimes.
Oliver, who reloaded his semiautomatic in the middle of the fray, fired 31 times, Isnora fired 11 times, and Cooper, whose leg was brushed by Bell's moving car, fired four times, the NYPD said.
No gun was found near Bell or his friends.
Soon after his death, Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre, legally changed her name to Nicole Paultre Bell. She is raising the couple's two daughters, ages 5 and 1.
"I tell [them] that Daddy's in heaven now," she said. "He's watching over us. He's our guardian angel. He's going to be here to protect us and make sure nothing happens to us."
Detectives Endowment Association President Michael Palladino said forensic and scientific evidence presented during the seven-week trial contradicts the testimony of prosecution witnesses.
But Paultre Bell's father, Lester Paultre, said, "For those naysayers who say the police was doing their job, they should imagine their child in that car being shot by the police for no reason."
Paultre Bell, Guzman and Benefield have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in federal court that has been stayed pending the outcome of the criminal trial. Guzman was shot 16 times, and four bullets, too dangerous to remove, remain in his body, according to his lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein.
Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York have been monitoring the trial. In the event of an acquittal, it is likely authorities would conduct a review to determine whether there were any civil rights violations.