Were the NYPD Acquittals Inevitable?

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Joshua Lott / Reuters

A nun calls police officers "murderers" after hearing the not guilty verdict in the case against three detectives during the Sean Bell trial, outside the Queens County Courthouse in New York April 25, 2008.

To most casual observers, the deadly New York City Police shooting of Sean Bell, a 23-year-old African American, in the early morning hours of his wedding day seemed an open-and-shut case. Everyone agreed that there was no crime in Bell's attending his bachelor party in the early morning hours of Nov. 25, 2006 with his friends at the Club Kalua strip club in South Jamaica, Queens, and that he and his friends Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman were not armed when they tried to drive away from the scene, about a block from the bar, after the undercover officers approached them and opened fire, killing Bell in a barrage of 50 bullets.

But those who monitored the case closely from the beginning saw no reason for surprise that the three detectives, Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper, were acquitted on Friday of all charges. They agreed that Queens District Attorney Richard Brown did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the cops were not justified in opening deadly fire in the incident — and his failure to do so, they argue, highlights the inherent problems with prosecuting via traditional means the long line of controversial police shootings of black victims.

"Clearly something wrong happened because an innocent man was killed," Peter Moskos, author of Cop in the Hood, and a professor at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told TIME. "But that's not what the system was testing. They were testing if there was reasonable doubt. I think the verdict is fair, but it doesn't address that this man was killed. The court system is no place to address these problems."

The detectives chose to have a bench trial instead of one by jury, which many will argue slanted the case in their favor from the beginning. During the eight-week trial, dozens of witnesses were called by the prosecution, and many gave incongruent testimony, Brown admitted at a press conference after the verdict. For example, where shooting victim Joseph Guzman testified that Bell spoke to him just moments before he died, a medical examiner testified the shots destroyed Bell's ability to speak. Bell's other passenger, Trent Benefield, testified that he was shot in the legs twice while running away from Bell's Nissan Altima, but a crime scene analyst proved that he was seated when the bullets hit him.

In other testimony, it was shown that gunfire shattering the car's front window could have caused Isnora to believe shots were coming from inside the car. Queens Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cooperman said the prosecution failed to refute that evidence or any witness that claimed the contrary. In his statement, he said that "at times, the testimony just didn't make sense."

None of it came as a surprise to community policing advocates like Noel Leader, the co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. In fact, in his view, the case should never have been pursued by Brown at all.

"We've been critical from day one," said Leader, who is also a retired New York police sergeant. "We called for a special prosecutor when the incident first occurred. We pointed out many erroneous positions taken by the D.A.'s office. We're disappointed, and angry, but we're not surprised."

Leader claimed there was sufficient evidence to prove that the officers acted incorrectly, but that the prosecution failed by not calling an expert witness to speak to the New York Police Department's rules on the justification for the use of deadly force. "There are strict regulations as to when an officer can discharge a weapon," he said. "There was enough to get a conviction, but because of the relationship between the D.A. and the NYPD, we have no confidence in them at all."

Bell's death was New York City's second high-profile fatal police shooting in the last decade. In 1999, four Bronx policemen were acquitted in the death of Amadou Diallo, an Guinean immigrant who was also unarmed when cops opened fire on him. Since then, civil rights activists concerned about a compromised relationship between the local district attorney's office and the police department have called for special prosecutors to be used instead to handle such sensitive cases of police misconduct.

"The solution is independent prosecutors; the only way you will get a sense of disinterest in the criminal justice system is to have state prosecutors," said Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. "I have not seen yet an effective local prosecution where a person has died as a result of a questionable police shooting." In fact, the only time in New York City when a police officer was actually convicted in the shooting death of an innocent civilian was in the 2003 death of Ousmane Zongo, an immigrant who was unarmed when police shot him in a Chelsea warehouse counterfeiting raid. The police later admitted Zongo had no connection to the counterfeiters, and one officer was convicted of criminally negligent homicide, though he was sentenced to just five years' probation.

Other municipalities have called special prosecutors in police shooting cases. For instance, in a January incident in Lima, Ohio, in which a 26-year-old woman was shot and killed and her 14-month-old son was wounded in a SWAT raid, a special prosecutor was appointed by state Attorney General Marc Dann. In Crawford, Neb., a special prosecutor was also appointed by a district judge to investigate the October police shooting of a 16-year-old boy in an abandoned bar. Both cases are pending.

Meyers said that early on it looked like the prosecution was in trouble because of its reliance on non-credible and often contradictory witnesses. He blames the relationship that Brown's office has with the police department. In the press conference, Brown admitted that his office does, in fact, work closely with the NYPD, further buttressing Meyers frustration that there is no state special prosecutor. "The civil rights community has been calling for years for this," he said, "but you don't have any leadership on the part of the governors of New York State."

Despite their acquittals, Oliver, Gescard and Isnora are not in the clear yet. They still face disciplinary action from the NYPD, a civil suit is pending, and Brown said the U.S. Attorney is considering a civil rights case. None of it, however, brings much solace to Bell's family, particularly his would-be bride Nicole Paultrie-Bell, who adopted his surname in the wake of his death and is left to raise their two children alone.