- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) — The death of an unarmed man caught in a barrage of 50 police bullets on his wedding day can’t be explained “as a mere accident or mistake,” a prosecutor said yesterday at the opening of the trial of three undercover police officers.

The hail of gunshots outside a strip club killed Sean Bell, who had been at a bachelor party on the night before his wedding, and wounded two of his friends. The shooting has sparked protests and debate over excessive force and police conduct in New York City.

The lawyer for one of the defendants told the judge in his opening statement that he would introduce evidence showing that Mr. Bell was drunk and “out of control” during the early morning confrontation.

The defendants waived their right to a jury trial, so state Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Cooperman is hearing the case by himself.

Mr. Bell’s fiancee, Nicole Paultre-Bell, is expected to be the first witness at the trial, and she has said she plans to be in court every day.

Assistant District Attorney Charles Testagrossa said in his opening statement that one of the three undercover officers failed to display his badge in a clearly visible manner and wait for backup before confronting the three men, and gave contradictory orders to Mr. Bell and his friends.

Mr. Testagrossa was referring to Detective Gescard Isnora, who fired 11 of the shots during the Nov. 25, 2006, incident.

Mr. Isnora and Detective Michael Oliver have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter; Detective Marc Cooper has pleaded not guilty to reckless endangerment. Mr. Oliver fired 31 shots, including the one that killed Mr. Bell, and Mr. Cooper fired four times.

Mr. Testagrossa said that once the evidence is heard, “It will be clear that what happened cannot be explained away as a mere accident or mistake.”

The prosecutor also said Mr. Oliver would have found there was no threat if he had “paused to reassess” while firing, but defense lawyer James Culleton estimated that it took as little as 9 seconds for Mr. Oliver to fire the 31 rounds from his semiautomatic pistol — even with reloading — giving him no time to reassess.

Mr. Culleton said Mr. Oliver saw Mr. Bell’s car pulling away and heard Mr. Isnora yell “He’s got a gun! He’s got a gun!”

He said Mr. Oliver will testify that he saw Joseph Guzman, one of Mr. Bell’s companions, start lifting his arms. He said Mr. Oliver was convinced that, if he hesitated, “he’d be looking down the barrel of a gun and he’d be a dead man.”

Investigators found no gun at the scene.

Mr. Isnora’s attorney, Anthony Ricco, said there was evidence that Mr. Bell was drunk and “out of control” when he left the club. Witnesses overheard Mr. Bell exchange curses with another patron, and heard Mr. Guzman tell someone “Go get my gat,” slang for gun, Mr. Ricco said.

Mr. Rico said Mr. Bell, at Mr. Guzman’s urging, tried to strike Mr. Isnora with his car.

“When there is a confluence of alcohol and ignorance, there’s always a tragedy,” Mr. Ricco said.

Mr. Oliver and Mr. Isnora face up to 25 years in prison if convicted; Mr. Cooper faces up to a year on the lesser endangerment count.

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