Page last updated at 13:48 GMT, Thursday, 24 April 2008 14:48 UK

Were New York cops trigger happy?

By Chris Summers
BBC News

Verdicts will be delivered on Friday in the case of three New York police officers accused in connection with the death of an unarmed man who was shot only hours before his wedding. But what exactly happened to Sean Bell?

Sean and Nicole Bell
Nicole, the mother of Sean Bell's two children, prays for justice and I believe that the evidence is there to convict the officers on all counts on the indictment
Sanford Rubinstein

The aftermath of the shooting of Sean Bell and his two friends outside a strip club was reminiscent of an episode of CSI: New York.

But, unlike the television series, where unquestionable forensic evidence usually leads suspects to make neat and tidy confessions, the Sean Bell case ended in a messy court case.

The saga began in the early hours of 25 November 2006, when the 23-year-old left the Kalua strip club in the New York suburb of Queens with his friends Trent Benefield and Jose Guzman.

A heated dispute broke out with another patron of the club and the three friends apparently tried to drive away before pandemonium broke out.

No gun found

Five undercover police officers, who had been investigating prostitution allegations at the Kalua club, fired a total of 50 shots at the car carrying Mr Bell and his friends.

Two detectives, Michael Oliver and Gescard Isnora, were later charged with manslaughter and a third officer, Marc Cooper, was accused of reckless endangerment.

Mr Isnora and Mr Oliver face up to 25 years in jail if convicted.

Mr Isnora said he decided to follow the trio to their car because he believed they were going to carry out a drive-by shooting. No gun was ever found in their car.

Arrows show the trajectory of the bullets which hit Mr Bell's car
Arrows show the trajectory of the bullets which hit Mr Bell's car

Because two of the officers were black, the case did not have any of the racial overtones of the Amadou Diallo case - Mr Diallo was a Togolese immigrant shot in the Bronx in 1999. In that case four police officers, all white, were acquitted.

At Mr Bell's funeral, veteran black civil rights campaigner Reverend Al Sharpton told the crowd to forgive the officers, saying: "We must give Sean a legacy. A legacy of justice, a legacy of fairness. We don't hate cops, we don't hate race, we hate wrong."

Sanford Rubinstein, a lawyer representing Sean Bell's fiance Nicole, echoed Rev Sharpton's words: "The issue is not about race, it's about excessive force by the police."

The shooting became an issue for New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He admitted he was "deeply disturbed" by the case, but later added: "It also needs to be said that being a police officer is a very dangerous job."

Paused to reload

Eighteen months later, at their trial, prosecutors sought to portray them as "trigger-happy" cowboys.

Prosecutor Charles Testagrossa said Oliver fired 31 of the 50 shots and even paused to reload his weapon.

The crime scene in Queens
Mr Bell and his friends were celebrating his wedding at a strip club

In his theatrical closing speech, he said: "Thirty-one shots, thirty-one separate pulls of the trigger...Thirty-one separate decisions to use deadly force. Thirty-one opportunities to pause and reassess whether continuing firing was necessary."

Mr Testagrossa said Mr Bell was entirely innocent and "had everything in the world to live for". He was due to get married to his fiance, Nicole, later that day, and had a young child.

But the defence lawyers claimed Mr Bell's friends were liars and had played down their own roles in the tragedy.

They insisted the officers had overheard Mr Guzman say to one of his friends: "Yo, go get my gun."

Mr Cooper's lawyer, Paul Martin, claimed Mr Guzman had sparked the whole incident and told the court: "He's the reason we're here today."

Mr Oliver's lawyer, James Culleton, said the prosecution case was based on the testimony of Mr Bell's friends, who both had criminal records and stood to gain from $50m lawsuits against New York Police Department.

No jury

The defence team also claimed the work by the CSI (crime scene investigators) team had been sloppy.

(Left to right) Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper
The three detectives deny the charges against them

The defendants exercised their rights, under New York state law, to have a non-jury trial, so the verdict will delivered by a single judge, Justice Arthur Cooperman.

He has a thankless task, as much of the evidence has been contradictory and most of the witnesses who testified had criminal records.

One witness, club dancer Marseilles Payne insisted none of the police officers had identified themselves or shouted warnings before the firing began.

Mr Rubinstein told the BBC News website: "Nicole, the mother of Sean Bell's two children, prays for justice and I believe that the evidence is there to convict the officers on all counts on the indictment."

NY police trial for groom's death
25 Feb 08 |  Americas
NY rally deplores police shooting
27 Nov 06 |  Americas
Mayor 'disturbed' by NY shooting
27 Nov 06 |  Americas
NY police kill man on wedding day
26 Nov 06 |  Americas

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific