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The Sean Bell Trial Comes to an End

A State Supreme Court judge will now determine the fate of three police officers

(April 18, 2008-New York City) “We do not give police officers a blank check, the right to use deadly physical force without necessity or justification,” said Charles Testagrossa, a prosecutor in the Sean Bell trial. The attorney spoke for three hours on Monday, presenting the prosecution’s closing argument in the trial of three New York police detectives involved in the shooting of Bell, an unarmed Black man who died amid 50 police bullets last November. Two other Black men with Bell, also unarmed, were injured in the shooting. Testagrossa went on to say that the officers, who were working undercover on the night of the incident, opened fire without identifying themselves as police.

First to present for the defense was Paul Martin, attorney for Detective Marc Cooper, who shot four times. He argued that Cooper was justified because he believed he was under fire. “He responded how a New York City police officer should,” Martin said. “How he was expected to. How he must.”

Anthony Ricco, attorney for Gescard Isnora, who fired 11 times, said that Isnora displayed his badge and identified himself before shooting. He described his client, who is Black, as a police hero who patrolled the tough community he grew up in to make a difference. “He’s putting his life on the line every day for my kids, for your kids, for everybody else’s kids,” Ricco said.

James Culleton, attorney for Detective Michael Oliver, who shot 31 times, repeated the claim that the officers thought they were under attack. “When did my client go from being a hero cop who jumped out and risked his life to save his fellow officer,” Culleton asked, “to being a criminal?”

The arguments concluded with the prosecution. Bell’s mother, Valerie Bell, wept on her husband’s shoulder as Testagrossa finished his statement. “We ask police to risk their lives to protect ours,” he said. “Not to risk our lives to protect their own.”

State Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Cooperman will issue a verdict on April 25. If convicted, Isnora and Oliver each face up to 25 years in prison for manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment. Cooper faces up to one year on a lesser charge of endangerment. They have pleaded not guilty.


Defense Attorneys Make Their Case in Sean Bell Trial

Police officers and forensics experts take the stand

(April 11, 2008-New York City) Defense attorneys concluded their case this week in the trial of three New York police detectives involved in the shooting of Sean Bell. The 23-year-old Black man died in a hail of 50 police bullets on November 25, 2006, the morning of his wedding day.

The defense’s star witness was Officer Michael Carey, who shot three times during the incident but was not charged. He said that Bell and two friends who were wounded in the shooting ignored police commands to show their hands. Instead, he testified, Bell drove his car into one of the officers. Bell’s friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, testified last week that the officers, who were working undercover, never identified themselves as police.

An expert who examined ballistics evidence in the case was also called to the stand. Crime scene analyst Alexander Jason spoke about a phenomenon known as blowback, where glass hit by bullets flies back toward the shooter. He said this could make it appear as if someone was shooting from inside the car, which would explain why the officers believed that they were in danger. Jason, who tested the weapons that were fired at Bell, said that it took him 12.3 seconds to unleash 31 rounds, as one of the indicted officers did, including time needed to reload the gun. He also admitted that shooting so many times was difficult.

“My finger was getting worn out,” said Jason, according to news reports. “It took a lot of effort to pull that trigger.”

The officers have all pleaded not guilty. If convicted, Officers Gescard Isnora and Michael Oliver each face up to 25 years for manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment. Officer Marc Cooper faces up to one year on a lesser charge of endangerment. After both sides make their closing arguments, Justice Arthur J. Cooperman will consider his verdict.


Sean Bell’s Friends Testify at Trial

Two survivors of the shooting say the police fired without warning

(April 4, 2008-New York City) It was a week of intense testimony in the Sean Bell trial, as Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, who were seriously wounded in the notorious police shooting, took to the witness stand. The two Black men recounted that undercover officers fired at them without warning, releasing 50 rounds in total. Bell, whose bachelor party they were attending that night, November 25, 2006, was killed during the incident.

Benefield, 24, said he covered his face in the backseat of Bell’s car right before the police opened fire. “I felt myself get shot,” said Benefield, according to new reports. “I opened the door and jumped out on the driver’s side. I started running.” Benefield was shot three times. It wasn’t until later at the hospital that he learned the men who had fired at him were police officers.

“I thought it was over,” said Guzman, 32, who was shot 16 times in the passenger seat of Bell’s car and thought he was going to die.

Guzman testified that he told a dying Bell, “I love you.” He said Bell responded, “I love you, too.” And then, Guzman said, “he stopped moving.” Guzman’s injuries left him with a metal rod in one leg, dependence on a cane, and four bullets remaining inside his body.

Both Benefield and Guzman said they never heard the officers identify themselves as police, nor did they see any badges. They also denied that anyone in Bell’s group had said anything that night about getting a gun, contradicting claims made by defense attorneys. No gun was found in the car.

The prosecutors rested their case Wednesday after Guzman completed his testimony. The defense began presenting its case on Thursday, after nearly six weeks of arguments from the other side. The defendants-Gescard Isnora, Michael Oliver and Marc Cooper-say they thought Bell and his friends had a weapon; they said they believed a gunfight was imminent. They also claim to have identified themselves as police before firing.

If convicted, Isnora and Oliver each face up to 25 years in prison for manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment. Cooper faces up to one year on a lesser charge of endangerment. They have pleaded not guilty.


Credit: Courtesy of Nicole Paultre Bell