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Monday, February 25, 2008

Trial for cops in Sean Bell shooting to start

February 23, 2008

His killer was a cop.

That much, at least, is clear from the way 23-year-old Sean Bell was shot dead in a confrontation with police early on Nov. 25, 2006, outside a notorious strip club in Jamaica. He died just hours before his wedding.

Monday in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens, three of the detectives who were among five plainclothes officers who fired their weapons a total of 50 times will go on trial in connection with Bell's death. Bell's fiance, Nicole Paultre Bell, is expected to be the leadoff witness.

Bell, of Far Rockaway, who like his two wounded friends was unarmed, was struck four times and suffered two fatal wounds, prosecutors said. Two friends, Trent Benefield, 24, and Joseph Guzman, 32, also were shot but have recovered.

The officers, detectives Michael Oliver, 36, Gescard Isnora, 29, and Marc Cooper, 40, will, through their attorneys, argue self-defense. The cops believed someone in the car was armed and that Bell's accelerating Nissan Altima, which crashed into a police van, put the cops at a serious risk of death or injury, according to police officials and sources close to the defense. All three detectives have decided to have Queens State Supreme Court Judge Arthur Cooperman hear the case without a jury.

"We are looking for the judge to do justice," said attorney Sanford Rubenstein, who along with Michael Hardy is representing Bell's family and the other two victims.

Two of the detectives, Oliver and Isnora, are accused of the most serious charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter and face 25 years in prison. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown contends they fired the rounds from their department-issued 9-mm handguns, which contributed to Bell's death. Isnora, who was working undercover during an investigation to ferret out suspected prostitution, discharged 11 rounds. Oliver, who had been stationed outside the club, fired 31 times.

Cooper, who had been in the club for a period of time, is believed to have shot his weapon four times, but only faces a misdemeanor second-degree reckless endangerment charge. One of his bullets blew out the window of a nearby AirTrain station, investigators said.

Bell's death and the numerous shots fired by several cops outside Kalua Cabaret on 94th Avenue sparked a firestorm of criticism over police tactics. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly later announced enhanced training and screening of undercover officers.

Although two of the cops, Isnora and Cooper, are black, the Rev. Al Sharpton jumped in to criticize police for shooting three unarmed black men and to demand justice for the victims. Sharpton couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

Attorneys for the three detectives either declined to comment or couldn't be reached on Friday.

Conventional courthouse wisdom and statistics hold that defendants have a better chance of acquittal during a so-called bench trial. But the three cops are still taking a gamble. In the past, some cops who elected to go nonjury were convicted of less serious offenses.

Defense attorneys and legal experts not involved in the case believe the best defense for the cops is to show they fired their guns under the mistaken belief that someone outside the club was armed and about to use deadly force.

"It is getting hot on Liverpool , for real. I think there's a gun," Isnora said in one phone call to a supervisor moments before the shooting, according to a police report.

To best defend themselves, the cops will take the stand, said the experts.

"They have to. That is why you do a bench trial," said former federal prosecutor and now defense attorney Steven K. Frankel of Manhattan.

The fact that a veteran judge like Cooperman will hear the evidence means that the court will have a more dispassionate view of the testimony, Frankel said.

Crucial to the cops' defense will be their state of mind when they began firing, Frankel said. Evidence about police radio reports that someone in the club may have been armed, although Bell and his friends weren't, is going to be important.

"When you hear someone is armed, you have to assume they are armed," Frankel said.

But more than just the threat of a gun was on the cops' minds. A police report of the shooting stated that witnesses said that Bell's four-door sedan struck Isnora while it was accelerating away from the club. The Nissan then crashed into the police van. The motion of the vehicle, some lawyers said, could have been construed as a deadly threat against Isnora, whose leg was injured. Isnora then fired in self-defense, perhaps triggering the shooting by the other cops.

Murray Richman, a well-known defense attorney from the Bronx who has defended a number of police officers, said that the best defense tactic might be to have only Oliver, the detective who faces the least serious charge, take the stand.

"Put the one defendant on the stand, the one with the misdemeanor, with the least to lose," Richman said.

Oliver, who faces only a year in prison if convicted, would then give a version of events that the court would consider from the viewpoint of the police. However, Richman thinks it would be unwise for the defense teams to put all three officers on the stand because it will be impossible to have them testify consistently because of the chaos of the scene and the different vantage points of the officers.

Richman said the detectives can take the legally defensible position that they had wrong information about someone having a gun. "Even if it is a mistaken belief, it is a valid defense," Richman said.

If the cops are found to have fired in self-defense, Richman doesn't think they will be found guilty of the first-degree manslaughter charge.

But the real battle, Richman said, will come over whether Oliver and Isnora were reckless in firing so many times at a car with three passengers. If the judge determines the firing was reckless, that could support a finding of second-degree manslaughter, which is defined as recklessly causing someone's death, Richman said.

"That is the issue," he said.

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