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New York Police Not Guilty of Manslaughter in Sean Bell Case

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Nicole Paultre Bell, the fiancÈe of Sean Bell, ran out of the courtroom immediately after a judge handed down a not guilty verdict for all three of the New York City police detectives indicted in Bell's shooting death. The following day, a composed Paultre Bell spoke softly in measured tones to a crowd inside the Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network headquarters in Harlem.

"They killed Sean all over again," Paultre Bell said to supporters. "Yesterday the justice system let me down. I gave them the benefit of a doubt. But I'm still praying for justice. It's far from over. Every rally, every march, I'm going to be right up front."

Civil rights organizations, including the National Urban League, Blacks in Government and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also gathered in Harlem and called on the United States Department of Justice to prosecute the officers involved in the shooting and to enact laws to make police brutality illegal. "We will not see another generation of African-American men being shot down without justice," said New York Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke. "We will be focused like a laser until justice rains down." This week the Bell family is scheduled to meet with members of Congress to discuss a federal investigation into the case.

Bell and two friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, were shot in the early morning of November 25, 2006, after Bell's bachelor party at a Queens strip club. He and Paultre Bell were to have been married later that day. As the young men were leaving in Bell's car, undercover detective Gescard Isnora approached them with a gun. Guzman and Benefield maintain that Isnora never identified himself as a police officer. After the men tried to flee, Isnora and the other officers opened fire, releasing a total of 50 rounds and killing Bell. All three Black men were unarmed.

Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Cooperman cleared detectives Gescard Isnora, Michael Oliver and Marc Cooper on counts of manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment. Outside the courtroom in Queens, a growing crowd of about 500 people, most of them African-Americans, responded angrily to the decision. "We are not going to keep getting shot down like dogs,'' said one man to a row of television news cameras. "Animals get more respect."

A spokesman for the New York City police union said the verdict was proof that the officers received a fair hearing. "This was a tragedy," he said. "There is never a script. We have to deal with circumstances as they come."

Hours after the verdict was handed down, Sharpton responded to a crowd of Harlem community members. Seated onstage at his National Action Network headquarters, he solemnly described having visited Sean Bell's grave earlier in the day with the victim's heartbroken family. Sharpton also spent the morning meeting with New York Gov. David A. Patterson and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg as well as Michigan Congressman John Conyers to discuss Sharpton's plan to take action against the verdict. "Today we saw not a miscarriage of justice," Sharpton said. "We saw an abortion." He said he intends to lead acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, such as economic boycotts and demonstrations outside of Cooperman's home. Sharpton also said they will demand that the federal Justice Department review the case.

Sharpton further denounced Cooperman's rationale for the not guilty verdict, including the point that Benefield's testimony was discredited because he could not remember whether he had been shot while running standing up or while sitting in the car. "That's ludicrous," Sharpton said angrily. "The point is that he was shot. Maybe be couldn't remember because he was running for his life." He also criticized Cooperman's admission that the victims' criminal convictions played a role in his decision. "Even people with criminal backgrounds have civil rights," Sharpton said.

From the moment the verdict was handed down, supporters of Bell also struggled with the decision. Early this morning, an angry crowd chanted, "Murderers, murderers,'' as a representative from the New York Police Department walked out of the courthouse. Meanwhile, Paultre Bell wailed in the hallway, surrounded by tearful family members. The group then filed into a separate room.

Paultre Bell was responding to Cooperman, who minutes earlier had announced his decision before a packed Queens courtroom, prompting gasps of disbelief from those present. In a 15-minute statement, Cooperman explained his decision, saying it rested on the grounds of inconsistencies in the prosecution's case, including varying witness statements, witness recantations and possible motives witnesses had to lie.

"At times, the testimony just didn't make sense,'' stated Cooperman. He went on to say it was apparent that the exchange outside the club that night was "heated." He had considered the mind-set of the defendants, Cooperman said, and their actions were not proved to be criminal. He added that "questions of carelessness and incompetence must be left to other forums."

Credit: Courtesy of Nicole Paultre Bell

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