Sean Bell shooting incident
Memorial to Sean Bell at the place of the shooting
|Date||November 25, 2006|
|Location||Queens, New York City, New York, United States|
|Deaths||1 (Sean Bell)|
|Charges||Manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment|
|Verdict||All found not guilty|
|Litigation||$3.25 million lawsuit filed by Sean Bell's family|
The Sean Bell shooting incident took place in the New York City borough of Queens, New York, United States, on November 25, 2006, when three men were shot at a total of fifty times by a team of both plainclothes and undercover NYPD officers, killing Sean Bell on the morning before his wedding, and severely wounding two of his friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman. The incident sparked fierce criticism of the police from some members of the public and drew comparisons to the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo. Three of the five detectives involved in the shooting went to trial on charges of first and second-degree manslaughter, first and second-degree assault, and second-degree reckless endangerment, and were found not guilty.
Sean Bell was a nephew of the current University of Tulsa basketball coach, Frank Haith. He pitched baseball for John Adams High School in Ozone Park, and in his senior year he had an 11-0 record, with a 2.30 E.R.A. and 97 strikeouts in 62.2 innings. He also studied acting in Flushing, Queens. Bell held odd jobs after the birth of his daughter, Jada, on December 16, 2002. His fiancee, Nicole Paultre, told Larry King that Bell was studying to be an electrician and was unemployed when the shooting occurred.
The New York Post reported that Joseph Guzman had an argument with a man outside the bar, and threatened to get a gun. One of Bell's friends reportedly said, "Yo, get my gun," as they left the club. Thinking a shooting was about to take place, an African American plain-clothes officer named Gescard Isnora followed Bell and his companions. He alerted his backup team, who confronted Bell and his companions outside. According to Isnora, he "held out his badge, identified himself as a police officer, and ordered the driver to stop." Instead, Bell accelerated the car, striking Isnora, and then collided with an unmarked police minivan. Isnora said he thought he saw Guzman reach for a gun. He yelled a warning to the other policemen and they opened fire on the car. Five policemen joined in, firing about 50 bullets into Bell's car in only seconds.
Other accounts of the event conflict with that provided by the police. According to Joseph Guzman, the plain clothes detectives never identified themselves when they approached with drawn weapons. New York Daily News reported that the officers failed to warn Bell before opening fire, beginning to shoot as soon as they left their cars.
Isnora, the policeman who initiated the shooting, later claimed he saw a fourth man in the car, who fled the scene, possibly with the alleged weapon. One of Bell's friends, Jean Nelson, was speculated to have been the fourth man. Nelson admitted he was present, but denied being in the car or having a weapon. According to The New York Times, a preliminary police report said:
"... there was no meaningful discussion of a fourth man, a mysterious figure who some in the Police Department have suggested may have been present along with the three men who were shot. None of the witnesses whose accounts are in the report speaks of someone who may have fled — perhaps possessing a gun — and there are no indications that the police at the time were seeking anyone who may have left the scene."
Critics suggest that Isnora invented the fourth man to justify the shooting. Columnist New York Daily News Juan Gonzalez reported that in the hours immediately after the shooting, there was no mention of a fourth man in police calls and no search was launched for an allegedly armed man. This contradicts claims that the police searched the neighborhood for the missing man.
According to Michael Palladino, head of the police detectives union, a man working as a janitor nearby building told the detectives that he had seen a black man fleeing the scene, and that the man had fired at least once at the police. The janitor claimed he had then heard a detective shouting "police, police." However, ballistic evidence showed no evidence of any weapon having been fired except those of the officers.
In an interview on Larry King Live, Al Sharpton, accompanied by Paultre, stated that according to his conversations with eyewitnesses, none of the three men mentioned a gun while leaving the club. Sharpton also said that it would have been impossible for anyone in the car to have heard the police, and said they were likely to fear they were being car-jacked. However, several of the witnesses were paid by Sharpton. The NYPD Detectives union and others complained that the payments brought into question the witnesses' credibility. Sharpton replied, "How can [the Detectives Endowment Association] support the detectives and I can't support the victims?"
Five of the seven officers took part in the shooting. Detective Paul Headley fired one shot, Officer Michael Carey fired three times, Officer Marc Cooper four, Officer Gescard Isnora eleven, and veteran officer Michael Oliver emptied two full magazines, firing 31 times with a 9mm handgun, pausing to reload at least once.
An autopsy showed that Bell was struck four times in the neck and torso. Guzman was shot 19 times Benefield, who was in the back seat, was hit three times. Both men were taken to Mary Immaculate Hospital. Guzman was listed in critical condition and Benefield was in stable condition. Both survived the shooting. Benefield was released from the hospital on December 5, 2006, while Guzman was released on January 25, 2007. Surveillance cameras at the Port Authority's Jamaica AirTrain station a half block away from the shooting site recorded one of the bullets shattering the station's glass window, narrowly missing a bystander and two Port Authority patrolmen standing on the elevated platform.
Response to the shooting
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has said "it sounds to me like excessive force was used," and has called the shooting "inexplicable" and "unacceptable". Ex-New York governor George E. Pataki has also stated that the shooting was excessive. Kelly has put the five officers involved on paid administrative leave and stripped them of their weapons, a move the New York Times called "forceful". He told the Times that the officers were stripped of their guns because "there were, and are, too many unanswered questions." Both Bloomberg and Kelly have also noted that the shooting was possibly in violation of department guidelines prohibiting shooting at a moving vehicle, even if the vehicle is being used as a weapon. The Public Advocate extended condolences to Bell's former fiancée and family following the killing.
On December 7, 2006, Nicole Paultre legally changed her name to Nicole Paultre Bell to "honor the memory" of Sean Bell. New York State laws require a couple to obtain a marriage license prior to a wedding, and "although the marriage license is issued immediately, the marriage ceremony may not take place within 24 hours from the exact time that the license was issued." According to Nicole Paultre's attorney, a posthumous wedding was impossible since no marriage license had yet been signed.
On March 5, 2007, it was announced that a Rikers Island inmate offered to pay an undercover police officer posing as a hitman to behead New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly and bomb police headquarters in retaliation for the incident.
On March 25, 2007, New York Daily News reported that an unnamed Queens drug dealer, after being arrested, alleged that Sean Bell had shot him the previous year on July 13, 2006, over a drug turf dispute. Police sources called the drug dealer's account credible, but could not rule out the possibility of the drug dealer falsely identifying Sean Bell to garner favor with authorities. The attorney representing the Bell family, Nicole Paultre, and the two other occupants of the vehicle who were wounded during the shooting, denounced this development, saying, "We expected them to throw dirt at us and they are throwing dirt at us." NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau detectives say the dealer's tale has no direct bearing on the police shooting of Bell, though some legal experts[who?] said that it could help the defense by portraying Sean Bell as possibly armed and dangerous.
Investigation and criminal indictment
At that time, some activists called for a special prosecutor in the case, but New York's then-Governor Eliot Spitzer said he did not see the need for it although then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo promised to keep a watch on the criminal proceedings. The Queens district attorney's office interviewed over 100 witnesses and presented more than 500 exhibits to a grand jury. An issue considered by the grand jury was the New York State Penal Code's description of circumstances under which a police officer can use deadly force: "The use of deadly physical force is necessary to defend the police officer or peace officer or another person from what the officer reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force."
On March 16, 2007, three of the five police officers involved in the shooting were indicted by a grand jury. Officer Gescard Isnora, who fired the first shot, and Officer Michael Oliver, who fired 31 of the 50 shots, were charged with first and second-degree manslaughter, second-degree reckless endangerment and first and second-degree assault, while Detective Marc Cooper was charged with two counts of reckless endangerment. All three detectives pleaded not guilty at the arraignment hearing on March 19, 2007. Detectives Isnora and Oliver were released on bail and Detective Cooper on his own recognizance. Oliver and Isnora initially faced up to 25 years of prison for the charges.
The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, Second Department, denied a motion by the detectives' attorneys to move the trial to a venue outside of Queens. Following the adverse ruling, the detectives waived a jury trial and instead submitted to a bench trial.
The District Attorney Richard Brown has faced some criticism from activists who believe he did not question the police officers involved quickly enough.
Trial and acquittal on all charges
On April 25, 2008, all three of the police officers indicted were acquitted on all counts. The defendants opted to have Justice Arthur J. Cooperman make a ruling rather than a jury. The ruling was handed down in a state supreme court in Queens. (In New York, the trial-level courts are called "supreme" courts.)
A key defense forensic witness was Alexander Jason, a crime scene analyst and ballistics expert who disproved several of the prosecution's main points relating to the physical evidence. Among them was the timing of the incident. After doing tests with an NYPD pistol, Jason demonstrated that the 31 shots fired by one detective (Oliver) could have been done in about 12 seconds – not several minutes. Using high speed video during ballistic testing, Jason demonstrated that bullets fired through a car window would project glass both inside and outside the car and that this could be interpreted as shots coming from inside. Another of Jason's key points (mentioned in Judge Cooperman's written verdict) was that the person in the back seat of Bell's car (Benefield) was not shot while he was running away as he claimed, but while inside the car. Jason used computer generated 3D models to display some of his findings.
In his ruling, Justice Cooperman stated that testimony by Guzman and Benefield did not make sense. He also cited the fact that they had a pending 50-million-dollar lawsuit against the city. After the ruling was made, the family, led by Sharpton and several others went to Bell's graveside in Port Washington, Long Island for a memorial service.
Although the officers were acquitted, the three of them and their commanding officer were fired or forced to resign on March 24, 2012.
On May 7, 2008, Sharpton led a series of protests in New York City. Hundreds took to the streets in Manhattan and Brooklyn as part of the citywide "slowdown" effort led by Sharpton and his National Action Network. The crowd made its way to the streets, stopping the flow of traffic in many vital areas of the city. This led to police action, and the arrest of over 200 people, including Sharpton himself. Sharpton was arrested without incident at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. Bell's parents, his former fiancée, Nicole Paultre Bell, and the two shooting victims who survived, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, were also arrested.
On May 18, 2010, U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson, Jr. of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York lifted a stay on the civil lawsuit brought by Nicole Paultre Bell against the City of New York. On July 27, 2010 a settlement was reached. New York City agreed to pay Sean Bell's family $3.25 million. Joseph Guzman, 34, who uses a cane and a leg brace and has four bullets lodged in his body and Trent Benefield, 26, two passengers in Bell's car who attended his bachelor party and were wounded in the shooting, will receive $3 million and $900,000 respectively in the settlement, for a total of $7.15 million. Paultre Bell said "I believe the settlement is fair, but the most important thing is that our fight, my fight, doesn't end here. No amount of money can provide closure." New York City Corporation Counsel stated "The city regrets the loss of life in this tragic case and we share our deepest condolences with the Bell family." The head of the New York City Detectives Endowment Association said he thought the settlement was a joke. "The detectives were exonerated . . . and now the taxpayer is on the hook for $7 million and the attorneys are in line to get $2 million without suffering a scratch." Guzman said the settlement did not change the underlying reality that black and Hispanic men's lives are not worth much in New York and that the incident is bound to be repeated.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (December 2014)|
The Nicole Paultre Bell "When It's Real, It's Forever" non-profit organization was started in memory of Sean Bell. Rappers David Banner, Nicki Minaj, Prodigy, Immortal Technique and the Jamaica, Queens-based rap group G-Unit, The Game and Chamillionaire have each referenced the Sean Bell case in one of their songs. G-Unit dedicated the opening track to their T.O.S: Terminate on Sight album to Sean Bell and also paid tribute to him in the thank-you section of the liner notes. Nicki Minaj dedicated part of her verse New York Minute to Sean Bell "There's gotta be a heaven cause Sean Bell will never get to make it to his wedding." Chamillionaire referenced the case on the Mixtape Messiah 2 disc at the end of the song "Ridin' Overseas" (featuring Akon) where he says, "Rest in peace to Sean Bell, Chamillitary man". The Game dedicated the controversial song "911 is a joke" to Sean Bell. The Game dedicated the song "My Life" to Sean Bell as well.
Swizz Beatz, Cassidy, Maino, Styles P, Talib Kweli, Red Cafe & Drag-On recorded a song entitled "Stand Up (The Sean Bell Tribute Song)" in which they share their thoughts on the Sean Bell shooting.
Sean Bell Way
- Contagious shooting
- Jean-Charles de Menezes
- Johnny Gammage
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