Published: September 8, 2007
A Queens Supreme Court judge refused today to dismiss charges against three detectives in the shooting of Sean Bell, a 23-year-old man who died in a volley of police gunfire on his wedding day.
In his decision, Justice Arthur J. Cooperman rejected various arguments made by lawyers for Michael Oliver, Gescard F. Isnora and Marc Cooper, who followed Mr. Bell to his car during an undercover operation at Club Kalua, a topless bar in Jamaica, Queens. Justice Cooperman also refused to separate Detective Cooper’s trial for reckless endangerment from the cases against the two others, which involve far more serious charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter.
Outside the courthouse, friends and supporters of Mr. Bell’s complained that the case is progressing painfully slowly. The trial is scheduled for Jan. 7.“We will be noting the first anniversary of this without having seen these men go before the courts and justice be ascertained,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been helping Mr. Bell’s fiancée, Nicole Paultre Bell, and the two men who were in the car with Mr. Bell the morning he was killed. Mr. Bell was leaving Club Kalua with Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield after his bachelor party on Nov. 25, 2006, unaware that they were being followed by an undercover officer who believed they were going to retrieve a gun. In the confrontation that followed, five officers fired 50 shots at the men’s car, killing Mr. Bell and wounding Mr. Guzman and Mr. Benefield. No gun was found in the car.
Detectives Oliver and Isnora both face manslaughter charges, which could bring a sentence of 25 years in prison. Detective Cooper faces two misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment, which could bring a sentence of a year in prison. The two other officers, Detective Paul Headley and Officer Michael Carey, were not indicted.
Steven R. Kartagener, who is representing Detective Oliver, said the judge’s refusal to dismiss the charges was a disappointment, but no surprise. It represents “no factual decision as to who should be believed here, or what the truth of the situation actually is,” he said. Lawyers for all three officers are still pressing for additional evidence from prosecutors, including grand jury testimony. At the next court date, scheduled for Nov. 14, they will discuss any outstanding disagreements over exculpatory evidence, known as discovery, which the defense attorneys are entitled to by law.
“I think that’s going to be the big argument,” said Michael J. Palladino, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association. “Our attorneys are not yet satisfied with the discovery.”
In the motion to dismiss charges against the three officers, their lawyers fleshed out their version of the episode: Detective Isnora and another undercover detective tried to engage in “small talk” with exotic dancers, anticipating an arrest for prostitution. After two hours, neither had been solicited, and Detective Isnora “began to feel somewhat uneasy about his safety,” the memorandum said.
Shortly afterward, another dancer complained that someone in the club was harassing her, and a “heavy-set fellow” in a White Sox hat indicated that he had a gun and would handle the problem. Detective Isnora alerted the rest of his team and prepared to make a gun arrest.
After Detective Isnora left the club to retrieve his weapon, shield and bulletproof vest to make the arrest, he witnessed a “loud argument” between Mr. Bell and his friends and a woman who “told the group of men that she was not going to go to a hotel room with them, where they wanted to have sex with her,” according to the document. A man driving a black S.U.V., who was standing with the woman, “directed unpleasant comments in the direction of Guzman and Bell,” prompting Mr. Guzman to say “get my gun, get my gun.”
At that point, the memorandum states, Detective Isnora was convinced that Mr. Bell and his friends “were intending to drive back to the Kalua Club, to do a drive-by shooting of the driver of the black S.U.V.” He followed them and stepped in front of Mr. Bell’s parked car to prevent them from doing so, yelling repeatedly, “Police, don’t move,” according to the memorandum. The car “bolted out from the curb” and struck Detective Isnora, who believed he saw Mr. Guzman reach into his waistband for a gun. Detective Isnora began firing, and so did four other officers. The shooting lasted “a total of 10 to 12 seconds,” the document said.
In comments after today’s hearing, Mr. Guzman — who no longer needs a wheelchair but walks with a cane — said there “should be five cops on trial instead of three, but that’s the way the system works right now.”