NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York police who killed an unarmed black man with 50 shots on his wedding day were careless and desperate to make an arrest because their vice unit was about to be disbanded, a prosecutor said on Monday.
Two officers went on trial for manslaughter and a third for reckless endangerment in the death of Sean Bell, 23, who was killed in 2006 following a bachelor party at a strip club in a case generating outrage in much of New York’s black community.
Civil rights activist Al Sharpton sat next to the fiance, Nicole Paultre, in a gallery packed with Bell’s friends and relatives and police sympathetic to the defendants. Protesters outside, many of whom wanted the officers to face murder charges, held up signs numbered 1 to 50, chanting each number.
Demonstrators have called the case an example of police brutality toward blacks. One of the defendants is a black, one is black Hispanic and the third is white.
The case will be decided by a State Supreme Court judge because the officers waived their right to a jury trial, saying any jury in the borough of Queens would be biased against police due to intense media coverage.
On the night of the shooting, the officers were told by a superior officer, “This might be our last night together. Let’s make it count,’” assistant district attorney Charles Testagrossa said in opening arguments.
He accused the officers of “carelessness verging on incompetence” and said that once the shooting began they “never paused to reassess.”
The Club Enforcement Unit was eager to make a prostitution arrest, which would have shut the club down, Testagrossa said.
Defense lawyers countered that the officers were engaged in dangerous police work and lacked the benefit of hindsight.
Bell and two friends left his bachelor party in the early morning hours of his wedding day on November 25, 2006, and were followed to Bell’s car by police who believed one of the men was going to fetch a gun to settle a dispute.
When police pulled their guns on Bell, he drove into one of them and rammed into an unmarked police van.
The defense lawyer for officer Michael Oliver, who fired 31 times by emptying his gun and reloading, faulted prosecutors for focusing on the number of shots and relying on hindsight.
“The fundamental flaw in the people’s case is its fixation on the number of shots,” James Cullerton told the judge.
Describing Oliver’s mindset at time of the shooting, Cullerton said: “If he stopped, he would be looking down the barrel of a gun.”
The lawyer for Gescard Isnora, the undercover detective who fired the first shot and 11 in total, urged the judge to strip politics from the hearing and portrayed his client as trying to shut down a “gritty, raunchy strip joint in a working-class community.”
None of the three officers had ever fired their weapons before in the line of duty, defense lawyers said.
The fiance, Paultre, 23, wearing a black suit and appearing composed and soft-spoken, was called as the prosecution’s first witness. Paultre said that she and Bell, the father of her two young daughters, had been high school sweethearts.
She said that she had attended a bridal shower at her mother’s home on the night of Bell’s death, and that he and six friends had planned his bachelor party at the last minute.
On what was to be their wedding day, Paultre said she went to the hospital with her mother and older sister to see Bell. When asked what condition he was in, Paultre broke down in tears. “He was in the morgue,” she said.
Editing by Daniel Trotta, Michelle Nichols and Sandra Maler