- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) Three detectives were acquitted yesterday in the 50-shot killing of an unarmed groom-to-be on his wedding day — a case that put the New York Police Department at the center of another dispute involving allegations of excessive firepower.

Scores of police officers surrounded the courthouse to guard against potential chaos, and as news of the verdict spread, many in the crowd began weeping. Others were enraged, swearing and screaming Murderers! Murderers! or KKK!

Inside the courtroom, spectators gasped. Sean Bell’s fiancee immediately walked out of the room; his mother cried.

Mr. Bell, a 23-year-old black man, was killed Nov. 25, 2006, in a hail of gunfire outside a seedy strip club in Queens as he was leaving his bachelor party with two friends.

Officers Michael Oliver, 36, and Gescard Isnora, 29, stood trial for manslaughter, while Officer Marc Cooper, 40, was charged with reckless endangerment. Two other shooters weren’t charged. Officer Oliver squeezed off 31 shots; Officer Isnora fired 11 rounds; and Officer Cooper shot four times.

Moments after the verdict was announced yesterday, Trent Benefield, a friend of Mr. Bell’s who was wounded in the shooting, staggered down the courthouse steps with a look of angry disbelief on his face, a friend’s arms tightly wrapped around his shoulders.

Not guilty. Not guilty. It’s real, he said, while dozens of people wearing Mr. Bell’s face on hats, T-shirts and buttons burst into sobs.

Within an hour, the crowd of about 200 people had settled down and dispersed. Despite a few scuffles between members of the throng and police officers, no arrests were made.

The officers, complaining that pretrial publicity had unfairly painted them as cold-blooded killers, opted to have the judge decide the case rather than a jury.

The judge, Justice Arthur Cooperman, indicated when he delivered the verdict that the officers’ version of events was more credible than the victims’ version. The people have not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that each defendant was not justified in firing, he said.

Hours later, the officers appeared at a press conference.

I’d like to say sorry to the Bell family for the tragedy, Officer Cooper said, thanking God, his lawyers and the police officers who supported him.

The U.S. attorney’s office said after the verdict that it had been monitoring the state’s prosecution and would conduct an independent review of the case. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who represents Mr. Bell’s family, called for a federal investigation.

This verdict is one round down, but the fight is far from over, Mr. Sharpton said on his radio show. What we saw in court today was not a miscarriage of justice. Justice didn’t miscarry. This was an abortion of justice.

Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives Endowment Association, responded angrily to Mr. Sharpton’s suggestion that the verdicts were unfair.

That’s despicable for him to say that because we have the greatest criminal justice system on earth, he said.

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