The cavernous, wood-paneled Queens courtroom of the Sean Bell trial is packed. Even though proceedings are well into the third week for the New York detectives charged in shooting Bell, an unarmed Black man who died in a storm of 50 police bullets on what was supposed to have been his wedding day, the case has sustained vigilant attention. The young man’s parents, William and Valerie Bell, listen intently to the witnesses called to the stand, along with a diverse mix of news reporters, local high school students, the Rev. Al Sharpton and other community activists.
Also in attendance, flanked by close relatives, is Bell’s fiancee. Dressed in a chic black suit, a tiny gold pin attached to her lapel reading “Sean Bell: See You Later,” Nicole Paultre Bell, 23, leans forward in her seat. As she listens to testimony from residents who recount being jolted awake by the sound of gunshots, and crime-scene detectives with ballistics evidence, her poise never breaks. Paultre Bell has made getting justice for her slain fiancÈ a full-time job, and sheís serious about her business.
During recess, at an Italian restaurant across from the Queens County Criminal Court, Paultre Bell sits up straight and speaks confidently about the trial and Sean Bell, her high school sweetheart and the father of her two young daughters.
Essence.com: You’ve attended every day of the trial so far, and you plan to make all the court dates. Why is it so important for you to be here?
Nicole Paultre Bell: Sean meant the world to me; he still does. So this is personal, this happened to Sean, but it also happened to me. That’s just the bond we have. So I have to be here every day, to know what happened to Sean. I need to know.
Essence.com: I noticed in court that you seemed very focused, even on the more technical ballistics details.
Paultre Bell: Every little detail is just so important. I have my pad and my pen ready if there’s something I don’t understand. I’ll ask my attorney or bring it to the DA’s attention. This is the day my life changed and turned upside down, and I have to have answers.
Essence.com: Do your daughters [Jada, 4, and Jordyn, 1] understand whatís going on?
Paultre Bell: Jada doesnít quite understand what it is, but she knows itís about her daddy. She misses me picking her up from school; she asks me every day if Iím coming to pick her up. But I tell her hopefully it wonít be much longer. Itís hard. I miss being home with Jordyn. But when I get there, she gives me a big hug and kiss, and it feels so good to be home with them after a long day here. They know as soon as I get home, even though itís emotionally draining being here every day, theyíre my priority.
Essence.com: Whatís been the most difficult part of the trial so far?
Paultre Bell: Honestly, all of it. Everything. Even seeing all those holes in my car, the car that my kids and I were in every day. My children’s car seats were in that car, and my daughterís baby mirror. You can still see all of that in the pictures. It hurts.
Essence.com: Only three of the five detectives involved in the shooting were indicted. Do you think the other two should be on trial too?
Paultre Bell: Well, the grand jury heard all the evidence. And the officers who weren’t indicted did testify before the grand jury, so I’m comfortable with the way it is. I feel safe with that.
Essence.com: Do you have faith that the verdict will go the way you want?
Paultre Bell: Deep down inside, I do. I feel safe that Judge Cooperman will make the right decision. I don’t see why he wouldn’t. Sean and his friends were just out there trying to have a good time.
Essence.com: Besides jail time for the officers, what else do you hope comes out of the trial?
Paultre Bell: Nothing will ever bring Sean back. I don’t think there is any such thing as victory or even satisfaction in this situation, not for me. But I pray that in the future this will be an example for any officer who wants to abuse their authority. Hopefully they’ll think twice before anything like this ever happens again, and no other family will have to suffer the way we have.
Essence.com: From the beginning you’ve always said that youíre not angry at the officers. But have you been able to forgive them for what happened?
Paultre Bell: I don’t think I’ve reached that point yet. Every day I have to look at my children’s faces and know that their father was taken away from them. My daughters have to one day have a Sweet Sixteen and a wedding, and they have no father to be there with them. Thatís very hard. And itís something that should not have happened. It could have, and should have, been avoided. There are still times when Iím at home and in disbelief and think, Not Sean. I still have those moments.
Essence.com: During those moments, who is the person you turn to, that one person you know you can always call if you need to talk or cry?
Paultre Bell: First I have to say, my family has supported me so much. I don’t know where I would be right now if it wasn’t for them, especially my mom and my dad. But I think that one person would have to be my older sister Shelby. She’s so strong. She encourages me. There was one time she called me at about 4 o’clock in the morning, and she knows I go to sleep early, but it just so happened that I was awake and couldnít sleep. She goes, “Is everything all right? I just had a feeling that you were up.” It was the strangest thing. But we just have that bond, and I appreciate her.
Essence.com: When the trial is over, have you thought about what the next phase of your life will be?
Paultre Bell: I have. But I can’t get past — I have to take one day at a time. Since November 25, 2006, all I can do is take it one day at a time. That’s the only way I can get through it. Otherwise I start to get so overwhelmed just thinking about everything and all the pressure. But right now my focus is justice. I want to see justice done. From that day, I’ll start to look forward and plan and see whatís ahead.
If you would like to send a letter of condolence, a gift or monetary donation, please mail it to:
Nicole Paultre Bell
PO Box 900537
Far Rockaway, NY 11690
Credit: Peter Chin
Nicole Paultre grasps a photograph of her, Sean and their children. She was photographed for exclusively for ESSENCE.