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The Sean Bell Shooting and the NYPD Trial

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NYPD Oversees Sean Bell Protest
Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images.

What Happened:

On November 25th, 2006, 23-year-old Sean Bell was killed by plainclothes officers of the New York Police Department as his car was sprayed with bullets while leaving a bachelor party at Kalua Cabaret in Jamaica, Queens, New York. It was the day before his wedding. He was unarmed. Two of his friends, also unarmed, were wounded in the attack.

Legal Response:

On March 16th, 2007, a Queens grand jury indicted three of the five officers--Marc Cooper, Gescard F. Isnora, and Michael Oliver--on a range of felony charges including manslaughter and reckless endangerment.

The Prosecution's Account:

Undercover NYPD officers had been investigating Kalua Cabaret as a possible prostitution venue when they encountered Sean Bell and his friends fleeing an altercation after which someone (not Bell) made a reference to getting a gun. Officers, who were not in uniform, responded by rushing the car with guns drawn demanding that the driver pull over. The driver, seeing a group of armed men charging the car, floored the gas, bumping into an unmarked police minivan and then into a security railing. The officers fired 50 shots into the vehicle, killing Bell and injuring his two passengers.

The Defense Account:

Officers admit to the above account, but claim that they made every attempt possible to identify themselves as police officers prior to the shooting. Defense witnesses also claimed that a fourth, armed man was in the vehicle and that one of the three men fired shots at the officers at the scene, but both claims were later discredited; the police report had made no reference to a fourth occupant in the car or to shots being fired by the suspects, and forensic evidence indicated that only the police had fired shots.

Acquittal on All Charges:

On April 25th, 2008, all three officers were acquitted. While the judge acknowledged that events of the shooting raised serious questions about the officers' ability to perform their duty (even suggesting that "carelessness" and "incompetence" could be relevant factors), he felt that the behavior of the officers did not rise to the level of a criminal offense. Because the defendants had requested a bench trial, the verdict was handed down by the judge alone rather than by a jury.

NYPD Response:

The officers have been suspended without pay pending the results of an internal NYPD investigation. Some groups, such as ColorOfChange.org, have indicated that an internal investigation is likely to be biased and have called for an independent investigator.

Federal Response:

The U.S. Department of Justice is presently determining whether or not to file federal civil rights charges against the officers. It is worth noting that following the Rodney King beating in 1992 and the acquittal of his assailants by a local court, the federal government did charge and convict the officers.

Civil Charges:

In July 2007, the family of Sean Bell filed civil charges against the officers responsible for his death.
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