Race has already played a part in the pretrial legal maneuvering. The three cops on trial first asked to have the proceeding moved out of Queens, the way the Amadou Diallo trial had been moved from the Bronx (which led to an acquittal of the Diallo cops). When the court denied their change-of-venue request, they gave up on a jury altogether, exercising their right to have a bench trial, in which a judge alone determines guilt or innocence. To some, this is an obvious sign that the cops don’t believe they can win the sympathy of even one juror in Queens, where scores of languages are spoken and immigrants and minorities are the majority. “These guys are so disingenuous,” one veteran of police cases says of the cops. “If they had a jury of their liking, they’d take it. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book by cops: They don’t want to be tried by a jury of their peers.”
The fate of the three Bell cops now rests in the hands of State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cooperman, a 74-year-old judge on the brink of retirement, with no one to answer to but an appeals court. He has a reputation for fairness, but also independence, meaning both sides will have to work hard to sway him. The very fact that police fired so many bullets has led most people to expect a conviction. That expectation would only make an acquittal more incendiary. And yet, maybe we are entering a Barack Obama–post-racial age. Maybe Mike Bloomberg has meaningfully lowered the city’s racial temperature. Maybe the narrative of the racist white cop run amok has lost some of its power, whether through familiarity or, more sadly, resignation.
The problem with contagious shooting is that it removes free will from the equation. Where does race factor in? Or plain incompetence?
Last week, I asked Al Sharpton what could happen to New York if the Bell cops are acquitted. Perhaps he was choosing his words carefully before the trial, but he seemed to bend over backward not to inflame matters. “I’ve always reacted nonviolently and peacefully,” he said, “including when I felt we were treated dead wrong on Diallo.” If the cops who shot Bell were to be acquitted, Sharpton says, his first move would be to ask the Justice Department for a civil-rights inquiry. “There’s clearly grounds to ask whether these men had the civil right to leave a club and sit in a car and drive off.” He’d also keep campaigning for the NYPD to throw the accused detectives off the force. “This would be the beginning, but it wouldn’t be the end.”
But the reverend is also careful to point out one more thing. “I think what gets left out of all this is that with all of the marching and the protests, two of the officers are black. So this is not just race here, this is about policemen’s conduct.”
What role does race have in this shooting? “Oh, I think there was a racial component,” Sharpton says. “Even the black officers would have behaved different if there were three young white guys walking out of that bar.”
Detective Gescard Isnora has told colleagues he’s shattered by what happened. He and Marc Cooper have kept a low public profile. Michael Oliver, meanwhile, seemed to change his story several times: First, he said he was unsure if he’d fired his gun at all. Then, when it became clear he emptied his chamber twice, Oliver said he reloaded because he thought his gun had jammed. Finally, he settled into a defiant resignation. “This was a split-second decision I had to make, and I did,” he told one source, who said that Oliver “believes in what he did. He feels terrible for the family over what happened. He’s saddened for what everyone is going through. But this was, ‘I thought I was getting fired upon.’ ” In March 2007, the night after his indictment, the tabloids spotted Oliver at a friend’s party at Nello dining on pasta with truffles and $575 bottles of Brunello di Montalcino.
Joseph Guzman was in critical condition for nearly a week after the shooting and has lost the feeling in one foot. His “good leg,” he said in November, has a metal rod in it. Trent Benefield has fared better, although he too has a rod in one leg. Both men are expected to testify at the trial.
Al Sharpton fought hard over the winter to oppose the defense’s request for a change of venue. He’ll be by Paultre’s side at the trial and has asked his supporters to come, too. “When Nicole walks in that courtroom, I want hundreds of us there,” he announced on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “This sister has been such a symbol of justice.”