NEW YORK -- At a heavily guarded courthouse in Queens, a State Supreme Court judge acquitted three police officers yesterday in the killing of Sean Bell, who was gunned down on the morning of his wedding.
Arthur J. Cooperman found the three detectives not guilty on all felony and misdemeanor charges. Gescard Isnora and Michael Oliver had been charged with manslaughter. A third, Marc Cooper, had been charged with reckless endangerment.
Spectators in the packed courtroom gasped as the verdict was read, and Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre-Bell, walked out.
As news of the verdict reached scores of protesters outside, there were cries of injustice and a brief scuffle between demonstrators and police on the courthouse steps.
"No, no, no!" cried an elderly woman, with tears streaming down her face. Some demonstrators shouted epithets against the police.
More than 100 officers had been dispatched to prevent the protest from turning violent, with some officers forming a human chain on the courthouse stairs and others stationed on rooftops across the street.
A woman got out a loudspeaker, chanting: "NYPD, you can't hide! We charge you with genocide!"
During an often tense seven-week trial, prosecutors and defense attorneys painted widely divergent pictures of what happened Nov. 25, 2006.
Officers, who had come to a strip club in Jamaica, Queens, for an undercover vice operation, fired 50 shots during the altercation, killing Bell, 23, and seriously wounding two of his friends.
Through witness testimony and in closing statements, prosecutors suggested that the officers were ill-prepared and acted recklessly during the confrontation that began outside the strip club about 4 a.m.
After an argument with another person outside the club, Bell and his friends got into their car. During the trial, witnesses testified that they did not hear Isnora identify himself as an officer as he approached the car with his gun drawn. Bell, who was driving, backed into Isnora's legs, causing him to fall down. Moments later, he and the other officers unleashed a barrage of bullets, killing Bell and severely injuring his two friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman.
Both have sued the city for damages.
Yesterday morning, protesters held up signs saying: "People's verdict: Guilty." Some wore baseball caps saying "Sean Bell Boys," others a button with a photo of Bell.
Bell's friends and family have drawn support from community groups and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Activists contend that the shooting is an example of excessive violence by police. The Bell case has been compared to the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man who was gunned down by police on his doorstep when he reached for his cell phone. A judge acquitted the white officers, prompting widespread and violent protests in the city.
Immediately after the shooting, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg reached out to activists and the Bell family, describing the police reaction as "excessive" and telling reporters that "it's hard to understand why 50-odd shots should be taken."
"There are no winners in a trial like this," Bloomberg said in a statement. "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."
Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.