NEW YORK (Reuters) - Three New York City detectives were found not guilty on Friday in the shooting death of an unarmed black man killed in a hail of 50 bullets on his wedding day, prompting angry reactions and a federal review of the case.
A New York state judge cleared two police officers of manslaughter and other charges and a third of reckless endangerment in the death of Sean Bell, 23. Bell was shot, along with two friends, after a bachelor party at a strip club in November 2006.
But federal authorities said they would consider civil rights charges in the case in a review to be conducted by the Justice Department, federal prosecutors and the FBI.
They will “take appropriate action if the evidence indicates a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil rights statutes,” the Justice Department said in a statement.
After the verdict, hundreds of demonstrators yelled angrily, and there was pushing and shoving in the crowd as police, reporters and spectators packed the sidewalk.
Civil rights leader Al Sharpton, who has been highly critical of police and is influential in New York’s black community, called for wider protests.
“They want us to act crazy so they would have an excuse to do more,” Sharpton told the audience of his radio show. “We are going to be strategic. We are going to close the city down in a nonviolent effective way.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for calm after the verdict, saying, “We don’t expect violence or law-breaking, nor is there any place for it.”
The case had generated outrage in New York’s black community, though police said they did not expect violence because numerous demonstrations against the perceived police brutality had remained peaceful.
“It shows that there is no justice in America for the black man. This is telling us the cops can do whatever they want and get away with it,” said B.M. Marcus, a community organizer.
The acquitted officers gave brief statements thanking their friends and family.
“I’d like to say sorry to the Bell family for the tragedy,” said detective Marc Cooper, who had been charged only with reckless endangerment.
The other two detectives, Gescard Isnora and Mike Oliver, were charged with manslaughter.
All three defendants waived their right to a jury trial and decided to have the judge decide guilt or innocence. The defense lawyers said jurors in the borough of Queens were likely to be biased against the policemen due to the intense media coverage generated by the case.
State Supreme Court Judge Arthur Cooperman said the charges could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, noting that some prosecution witnesses contradicted themselves from prior statements and may have had motivation to lie.
“At times the testimony just didn’t make sense,” Cooperman said.
After the verdict, loud sobs were heard in the courtroom.
The judge gave credibility to the detectives’ statements that they believed they were in danger but also offered, “Questions of carelessness and incompetence must be left to other forums.”
The eight-week trial centered on whether the detectives had reason to believe they faced imminent danger and whether they made it clear to Bell and the two survivors that they were police officers.
On the night of the shooting, Isnora, the undercover officer who fired first, followed Bell and his two friends to Bell’s car believing they went to fetch a gun to settle a dispute at the club. He opened fire after being grazed by Bell’s car as Bell attempted to drive away.
The other officers reached Bell’s car after the initial confrontation and said they believed Isnora was being fired at from inside the vehicle.
Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Jackie Frank