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Residents of Jamaica, Queens, gathered at the site of the police shooting of local Sean Bell to light candles and pay their respects, hours after a Queens County judge announced his "not guilty" verdict for the three detectives charged in the 2006 fatal shooting.
After two months of testimony by more than 50 witnesses, Detectives Michael Oliver, 36, Gescard Isnora, 29, and Marc Cooper, 40, were found not guilty Friday morning on all charges.
Most who gathered with signs and candles at the spontaneous neighborhood vigils had expected a guilty verdict on at least one of the counts.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, who has been an outspoken critic of what the detectives' use of force against Bell, was surprisingly quiet for several hours after the verdict. When he did finally address the verdict on his radio show, he slammed the judge's decision and said the battle is far from over.
"This verdict is one round down, but the fight is far from over," he said. "What we saw in court
today was not a miscarriage of justice. Justice didn't miscarry. This was an abortion of justice."
Sharpton is organizing a rally outside his National Action Network headquarters in Harlem at 10 a.m. Saturday. Bell's fiancŽe and the two other shooting victims are expected to attend.
Shouts of "No! No! No!" and swearing erupted outside the courthouse immediately after the judge read his verdict, followed by cries of "Not guilty!" from the huge crowd of people that had gathered outside the Queens courthouse. Some women were heard weeping loudly. Later, shouts of "Murderer! Murderer!" were heard.
Bell's family and supporters left the courthouse without commenting, trailed by the crowd that had gathered in a march along Queens Boulevard. While many appeared angered and shared their frustration with members of the press, there were no significant disturbances. Police did have to break up at least one angry scuffle, but that was peacefully accomplished. The crowd was carefully corralled by police barricades as well as police and court officers.
Many Bell supporters expressed disgust at the verdict, including Bell’s uncle.
"The verdict is not fair and I'm hurting inside and I don't see what the Judge sees in this case,” said,” said Bell’s uncle Kenneth Shepard. “These guys are guilty. You just don't go around killing people. When is it going to stop? When is it going to stop? The main thing, should have been a jury here.”
"You can't get peace without no justice! So don't expect it,” screamed one man.
“What's wrong with these people? What are they looking at? Nothing but reckless endangerment. Nothing,” added another.
“That particular cop that shot the most shots, he definitely should have gone to jail,” added another.
In anticipation of the verdict, there was a large police presence outside the courthouse to match the large crowds that had converged there, but the police commissioner says he doesn't expect any violent protests.
"There've been no problems,” said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “Obviously there'll be to some people who are disappointed with the verdict. We understand that. We've had no history of violence since this incident began as far as the vigils, the memorial services are concerned. We don't anticipate violence, but we are prepared for any contingency."
Before the verdict was read, Bell's family brought up the possibility of asking federal prosecutors to file civil rights charges against the officers if they were not convicted.
The attorney for Bell's fiancŽe expressed his disappointment in the judge's decision.
"Now it is clear what the answer is to this family about what the value of the life of an innocent person is in our community," said attorney Michael Hardy. "We now have to deal with that and we will."
The three detectives who were charged in the shooting waived their right to a jury trial, leaving their fate in the hands of Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cooperman. If they'd been convicted of manslaughter and other charges, Oliver and Isnora faced up to 25 years in prison if convicted.
Detectives Cooper, Oliver and Isnora made their first public comments since the shooting early this afternoon. Each spoke only briefly, thanking their loved ones and officials who stood by them during the trial.
"First and foremost, I would like to thank Lord Jesus Christ for bringing this to fruition," said Isnora.
Cooper spoke twice, taking the opportunity to offer his apologies to the Bell family for his death.
"I'd like to say I'm sorry to the Bell family for the tragedy," said Cooper.
Calling the shooting a “tragedy” for all police officers that have to live with the job they do, the head of the police union was the first to address the verdict.
“With this case, there are no winners, no losers,” said Patrolman’s Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch in response to the verdict. “We still have police officers that have to deal with the fact that a death was involved in their case.”
Lynch added that the union is "grateful" for the acquittals and that the verdict sends a clear message to police officers that if they are involved in a shooting, they can expect fairness in the courtroom.
Later, the head of the Detectives Endowment Association Michael Palladino, who has been an outspoken supporter of the detectives throughout the trial, spoke at length, calling Bell's death a tragedy, but not a crime.
"We have been portrayed as insensitive murderers and I can tell you that we are not," said Palladino.
Bell, 23, was gunned down on the eve of what was to be his wedding day in November 2006 outside a nightclub in Jamaica that was being investigated by undercover police officers. He and his friends had just left his bachelor party when police say they heard one of them reference a gun. Police fired 50 bullets at the group as they tried to drive away, killing Bell and seriously injuring his friends Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield.
Oliver fired 31 of the 50 shots. He was facing charges of manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment. Isnora, who was the first to open fire and was hit by Bell’s car, faced the same charges. Cooper faced just a reckless endangerment charge for a shot he fired that hit a nearby AirTrain platform.
In his decision, the judge criticized the prosecution’s witnesses, calling their testimonies inconsistent. Prosecutors said it was a difficult case to try.
“All of us working together. The law enforcement community, our elected public officials, the individuals who were involved have got to make certain that that which occurred on Liverpool Street in South Jamaica on November 25 of 2006 is never again repeated,” said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who said that he accepted the judge's decision.
Brown said he is calling on the Police Department to make changes in policy to ensure that such a shooting doesn’t happen again. He also said there are a number of hurdles left in the process. There is a federal inquiry going on and the Bell family is bringing a civil suit against city for Bell's death.
"We are a nation of laws and not of people, so that's why I accept Judge Cooperman's verdict," said Brown.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who originally called the shooting "excessive" back in 2006
, released the following statement, which read in part:
"There are no winners in a trial like this. An innocent man lost his life, a bride lost her groom, two daughters lost their father, and a mother and a father lost their son. No verdict could ever end the grief that those who knew and loved Sean Bell suffer."
The statement went on to urge peaceful protests by those oppose the verdict:
"There will be opportunities for peaceful dissent and potentially for further legal recourse - those are the rights we enjoy in a democratic nation. We don't expect violence or law-breaking, nor is there any place for it. We have come too far as society - and as a City - to be dragged back to those days."
Senator Hillary Clinton also weighed in Friday on the verdict. She called the shooting a tragedy that had saddened all New Yorkers, and that now the Justice Department should complete its civil rights investigation.
In a statement she said, "We must also embrace this opportunity to take steps - in our communities, in our law enforcement agencies and in our government - to make sure this does not happen again."
Dozens of people lined up early this morning outside the Queens courthouse hoping to get inside to hear the judge’s ruling, which was delivered shortly after 9 a.m.
Bell’s family along with that of his fiancŽe Nicole Paultre-Bell had breakfast just around the corner from the courthouse before marching into the courthouse together just before the judge handed down his verdict.
A group that called itself People's Justice staged a rally targeting Brown's office, saying that not enough was done to ensure justice was served.
"This is nothing surprising about this verdict," said one protester. "It is based on a long history of cases of police murder and police brutality, and not holding trigger-happy cops accountable to the murders that they are perpetrating on our communities."
"This affects all of us, it could be any of us," said another protester. And the fact that the youth like myself, were afraid we shouldn't have that image of police officers that the NYPD is portraying that they are killers."
The NAACP also held a gathering outside the offices and demonstrators said they hoped to see federal civil rights filed against the detectives.
Many Jamaica residents felt a mixture of anger and sadness
at the acquittals.
"I'm hurt. That's a disrespect to that man's family - a disrespect to that man's family. No justice. Disrespectful to all black people," said a local man.
"It's not about race. It's not about black and white. How many more persons are going to have to lose their life, and families suffer through traumatic pain at the hands of the cops. These are the people we are paying to damage our future and our children and break families. It's heart-wrenching," said a local woman.
During the trial, the two sides presented very different pictures of the scene outside Club Kalua on November 25th, 2006. The prosecution described the undercover detectives as reckless, failing to identify themselves as officers before opening fire on a group of unarmed men, then fabricating a story to justify the shooting.
The defense argued the detectives thought their lives were in danger, believing Bell and his friends were armed after one of them thought he heard Guzman say he was going to get his gun. No gun was ever recovered. The defense maintains the detectives did identify themselves and question the motives of Guzman and Benefield, both of whom have filed $50 million claims against the city.
Many are wondering how the city will react to the judge’s decision. The mayor has held several community meetings to encourage calm, and the police commissioner has said the NYPD is ready for any situation. Both the city and Bell supporters say they don’t anticipate any civil unrest.
"We certainly don't expect violence,” said Kelly. “There have been several vigils and memorial services. There's been no violence attended to those services. But we're prepared for any contingency."
“We are the same people that when the trial was wrongfully moved to Albany of Amadou Diallo, that I stood on these steps when they were acquitted and said, Îwe’re not going to throw one brick or one stick and we didn’t. We’re the same people,” said Reverend Al Sharpton.
"There are other means for them in case they are disappointed with the decision," said Marshall. "They can move it onto a higher court."
Eight years ago, dozens of people were arrested for violent protests when the police who fired 41 shots at unarmed Amadou Diallo were acquitted.