Three detectives were acquitted of all charges Friday in the 50-shot killing of an unarmed groom-to-be on his wedding day, a case that put the NYPD at the center of another dispute involving allegations of excessive firepower.
Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper were cleared in the 2006 slaying of Sean Bell. Isnora and Oliver faced the most serious charge of manslaughter.
The verdict wasn't a shocking surprise, since both defenders and critics have heavily criticized the prosecution's case.
"They’re not prosecuting like they believe in the case," a source inside the Bell family recently told the Daily News. "Are they presenting a no-holds-barred case? You could make the argument that they’re not."
The paper also reported, "The case also has divided the district attorney’s office, with prosecutors at the highest levels at odds over whether the cops should have been charged so harshly, sources said. 'There’s people in the office who think, because they’re cops, they can do no wrong,' a law enforcement source said."
Shouts of "No!" and "Not guilty!" erupted in the crowd outside the courthouse as word of the verdict spread. Some people wept on each other's shoulders.Justice Arthur Cooperman delivered the verdict in a Queens courtroom packed with spectators, including victim Sean Bell's fiancee and parents, as at least 200 people gathered outside the building.
As word of the verdict spread, many outside the courthouse began crying and yelled "No!" Some briefly jostled with police officers.
Bell, a 23-year-old black man, was killed in a hail of gunfire outside a seedy strip club in Queens on Nov. 25, 2006 — his wedding day — as he was leaving his bachelor party with two friends.
The officers, complaining that pretrial publicity had unfairly painted them as cold-blooded killers, opted to have the judge decide the case rather than a jury.
Officers Michael Oliver, 36, and Gescard Isnora, 29, stood trial for manslaughter while Officer Marc Cooper, 40, was charged only with reckless endangerment. Two other shooters weren't charged. Oliver squeezed off 31 shots; Isnora fired 11 rounds; and Cooper shot four times.
A conviction on manslaughter could have brought up to 25 years in prison; the penalty for reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor, is a year behind bars.
The case brought back painful memories of other NYPD shootings, such as the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo — an African immigrant who was gunned down in a hail of 41 bullets by police officers who mistook his wallet for a gun. The acquittal of the officers in that case created a storm of protest, with hundreds arrested after taking to the streets in demonstration.
The mood surrounding this case has been muted by comparison, although Bell's fiancee, parents and their supporters, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, have held rallies demanding that the officers — two of whom are black — be held accountable.
(with wire reports)
A video of the verdict appears at this link.
A video of a vigil held last night appears below.
This video is from The Associated Press, broadcast April 24, 2008.