The Sean Bell Trial: The Tortuous Road to ‘Not Guilty'

Gescar Isnora, Michael Oliver, Marc Cooper
Gescard Isnora, Marc Cooper, and Michael Oliver at a press conference earlier today, some time after hearing their "not guilty" verdict. Photo: AP

Sean Bell was innocent. Almost everyone seemed to understand that, going into the excruciating seven-week Queens trial of three cops who gunned Bell down the night before his wedding, November 25, 2006. But going in, there also was a lot of talk about how, once the trial started, the police’s defense lawyers might try to rough up Bell a bit, posthumously. It wasn't hard to guess that they would try to bring in his sketchy police record, or at least mention how anyone hanging out at 4 a.m. at the Club Kalua strip joint in Jamaica could be presumed to be up to no good. “They’re not going to say he’s a choir boy,” one veteran prosecutor of police cases told me before the trial started. “I think what they will do is try to disparage Club Kalua, a notorious drug spot. What good upstanding citizen would be there to begin with? It explains that cops are there to try to do the right thing.”

Sure enough, the police’s defense lawyers played the Club Kalua card from the start. “Who is attracted to such a place?" defense attorney Anthony Ricco asked imperiously. That (along with the fact that Ricco and two of the three cop defendants were also black) was a convenient way of getting around having to play the race card: The police were in danger, you see — how could they have been profiling?

It was a clever position, to be sure. But how could it stand up to the prosecutor's seemingly solid arguments? Sean Bell was a father. Sean Bell was about to get married to his high-school sweetheart. The mother of his two little girls. Going to Club Kalua that night apparently wasn't even his choice; it was the suggestion of a friend. And, more to the point: Bell didn’t have a gun. No one did. Before shooting 50 times, the cops hadn’t even seen a weapon — not that entire night. A slam dunk, right?

Wrong. The acquittal today of Gescard Isnora, Marc Cooper, and Michael Oliver (he’s the one who was so driven to fire that night that he reloaded — and then, on the eve of his indictment, partied at Nello) was a surprise until you looked at Judge Arthur Cooperman’s terse decision. First, the judge essentially bought into the Club Kalua argument. He gave the cops the benefit of the doubt for assuming this was a dangerous place with dangerous people, and that any talk about a gun could mean they should be ready to fire. You might say the outcome was clear the moment the cops waived their right to a jury trial. A judge, the three cops hoped, would be less swayed by the emotion behind this tragedy, more willing to call what happened around the corner from the club on Liverpool Street careless, not criminal. And that’s what happened.

There’s more behind this verdict, of course. There is the possibility of prosecutorial incompetence, well outlined in the Daily News by Denis Hamill. Why did they read the cops’ grand-jury testimony into the record, when that would give them more of an excuse not to take the stand? Why did they put witnesses on the stand who would contradict themselves, and not bother to prep them for dealing with that on cross? Don’t these people watch Law & Order?? Al Sharpton hasn’t accused the Queens D.A. Richard Brown of throwing this fight yet, but it doesn’t take much to imagine that’s next. Even the prosecutor I spoke with before the trial was concerned about this. “There has to be some tension between Richard Brown’s office and the police,” he said. “The difficulty with the Queens D.A.’s office is they need the police to prosecute their cases.”

But there’s another problem with this case that maybe not even the best prosecutor could resolve. Bell’s friends — the same guys who brought him to Club Kalua in the first place — just weren't convincing enough on the stand. Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, who were also shot that night but survived, insisted that no cop ever yelled ‘Police!’ or showed a badge. But it wasn't even about whether they contradicted themselves or one another, the judge said. It was their “demeanor on the witness stand,” and “the motive witnesses may have had to lie.” It was how “at times, the testimony just didn’t make sense.”

So the tarnishing of Bell's reputation wasn't even necessary to get an acquittal. In the end, Benefield and Guzman failed him twice — first in November, now in April. And the bullets they took this time, by failing to bring him justice, might have been the most painful.

Sean Bell, for the record, remains innocent. —Robert Kolker

Earlier: Officers in Sean Bell Trial Acquitted of All Charges
Related: A Bad Night ad Club Kalua