NYPD Detectives Make First Court Appearance In Shooting Of Unarmed Man

Tuesday, March 20th 2007, 8:27 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ The last time Joseph Guzman encountered the three police officers, they pulled their weapons and fired a barrage of bullets that killed his friend, Sean Bell, on what would have been his wedding day.

On Monday he faced them again, glaring at them from his wheelchair in a Queens courtroom as their lawyers entered not guilty pleas to manslaughter, assault and other charges.

The indictments of the officers were unsealed Monday in a packed, tension-filled courtroom as the victims and their families looked on.

Detectives Michael Oliver, who fired 31 times, and Gescard Isnora, a decorated undercover officer who fired 11 times, were charged with first-degree and second-degree manslaughter.

If convicted of the most serious charges, the detectives would receive mandatory prison time _ up to 25 years.

Oliver also was charged with endangerment for a bullet that smashed through the window of an occupied house. And a third officer, Detective Marc Cooper, was charged with a misdemeanor for a bullet that struck a train station across the street.

``I want everyone to know that we lost somebody dear and we are going to fight all the way until we get justice,'' Guzman said outside court. He stood up from his wheelchair to reach a microphone.

Another victim of the shooting, Trent Benefield, attended the 20-minute arraignment along with Nicole Paultre Bell, who was engaged to Bell and legally took his name after he died.

Before the proceeding, Bell's mother, wearing buttons with photographs of her son, leaned forward, bowed her head, closed her eyes and placed her hands together.

Oliver's attorney, Jim Culleton, described his client after the hearing as ``visibly upset and shaken.''

``This is an indictment. It is proof of absolutely nothing. It's merely an accusation.''

Said Cooper's attorney, Paul Martin: ``He has given 17 years of his life to the NYPD, and to see him now as a defendant is very upsetting and disappointing.''

The officers' union, the Detectives' Endowment Association, put up the cash for Oliver's and Isnora's bail, which was set at $100,000 each; Cooper was released without bail. Defense attorneys were considering whether to argue that the trial should be moved out of Queens because of negative publicity, said Michael Palladino, the union president.

``I can tell you we will commence a vigorous defense,'' he said.

The case renewed allegations that the NYPD is trigger-happy, and sparked protests by activists who say the department is too quick to judge black men harshly, a claim city officials deny. Bell was black, as are Guzman and Benefield. Cooper, 39, and Isnora, 28, are also black; Oliver, 35, is white.

Bell, 23, was killed after his bachelor party at a strip club where the officers were conducting an undercover operation in response to complaints about prostitution.

Union representatives and lawyers for the officers have said their clients were convinced that Bell and his friends were going to retrieve a gun from his car to settle a dispute and that Bell slammed his car into two unmarked police vehicles while trying to flee.

Two other policemen who fired their weapons were not charged but are on desk duty along with their supervisor amid an NYPD internal investigation.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has spoken for the victims' families, said the indictments fell short.

``Clearly, all five officers should be charged,'' he said. ``All officers acted in concert.''

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly vowed Monday that the department would intensify training and community relations in response to the tensions created by the shooting.

``The police department will redouble its efforts to build the best possible relations with all of New York City's diverse communities through continued improvements in police training, recruitment and community outreach,'' he said in a statement.