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, left, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper were accused in the 50-bullet barrage.
1 of 3 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.
One woman shouted at a black police officer, “How can you be proud to wear that uniform? Stand down! Stop working for the masters!”
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.
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.
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.
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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