Sean Bell, Day One: "I'm Not Afraid of Your Guns; You Have Guns, But I Have the Truth"

This obviously isn’t about dance, but, given my background, it’s something I care deeply about. If the trial lasts, as expected, a couple of months, I’m not going to be able to go to the whole thing, but I figured I’d go for a few days at least. Funny because, even though I’ve handled over 100 appeals, I’ve never even seen an actual trial. Not that this is a normal one in any sense, which is probably the most frustrating thing about it. There are many people — many of them black men like Mr. Bell — tried everyday, even in that same courthouse in Queens, some of them wrongly suspected by the police because of their race, and no one is talking about them. No one cares about them. Oftentimes their families don’t even show up to their trials. Just something for people to keep in mind in this absolute carnival the media is creating of this trial. You should have seen the cameras there. I counted nine network TV vans in total lining Queens Boulevard in front of the courthouse this morning; I didn’t even know there were that many local stations. And there was a guy with a television camera filming everyone as they, one by one, entered and exited the courtroom.

I got to the courthouse at 8:20 and there was already a line outside, which I joined. There were a few NAACP people in front, one woman playing a conga drum and some others chanting and carrying signs bearing Sean Bell’s picture and demanding justice. About ten minutes before 9, when trial was to begin, a group of white men, whom I assumed to be police officers or family and friends of the officer defendants, arrived and joined the line. As they walked past, the woman began beating on her drum, chanting grew louder, and another woman shouted, “I’m not afraid of your guns. You have guns, but I, I have the truth.” It wasn’t until around 9:15 that they let us in. By the time I got into the courtroom, the prosecutor had already begun his opening argument.

Anyway, if you haven’t heard about this case, Sean Bell is a black man who, on November 25, 2006, was killed by police gunfire upon leaving his bachelor party at a Queens strip club. The club had been the subject of many community complaints and the target of several police sting operations in an effort to crack down on drug selling and prostitution. A couple of arrests had been made there earlier that day. According to opening arguments, which took all morning, Detective Gescard Isnora, a young black man as well, who was acting as a primary undercover in a drug bust that evening in the club, overheard a dancer there tell another person a man had harassed and threatened her and made her feel his jacket, through which she felt what she thought was a gun. Isnora radioed to his team members, including Detectives Michael Oliver and Marc Cooper, to be prepared for this to turn from a drug bust into a “gun recovery” case. Upon leaving the club, Isnora observed Bell and some of his friends fighting with a man in an SUV, who was waiting for a dancer in the club, whom he heard threaten Bell’s group with a gun. According to Isnora, Joseph Guzman, Bell’s friend, said something to the effect that they would return to the man in the SUV with their own gun. Basically, Isnora radioed his team, the detectives all followed Bell to his car. Thinking Guzman had a gun, Isnora ordered Bell to stop his car, displaying his badge, but in a place that may not have been visible. It is also contested whether he identified himself as an officer. Bell kept driving, toward Isnora, running into him, then reversing and running into the police van containing Oliver. Thinking Guzman was reaching for a gun, Isnora yelled that to Oliver who began shooting, causing Cooper to shoot as well, thinking his colleagues were being shot at. In all, 50 bullets were fired killing Bell and injuring Guzman and another friend. There was no gun ever found in Bell’s car. That’s of course a hugely oversimplified nutshell, but I found the prosecutor’s opening statement to be confusing, mainly because it was so detailed as to who was where when and who radioed what to whom and who shot where, etc. etc. In any event, openings aren’t that important because they aren’t evidence; the testimony is what matters.

This is a bench trial (since the officers waived their right to a jury), so I figured the lawyers would behave more like appellate lawyers, rather than their dramatic, often rather bombastic, trial counterparts. But I was wrong. There is a jury, of course: the jury of public opinion; those of us in the audience, and those who will see and hear about the trial on TV or in papers. The attorney for Isnora, the black officer, in particular was a character. He was black, as was Cooper’s attorney (Cooper, by the way, is only charged with reckless endangerment for a single bullet that did not enter its intended target — Bell’s car — but was off 11-14 degrees and went instead into an Air Train subway platform where people were standing). Isnora’s attorney was very impassioned about his client and seemed very angry that the media has villified Isnora, making him out to be an evil police officer attacking a black man, when he, in fact, was a young black man himself who had come from the ghetto and could have easily ended up a druggie and a pimp, but instead worked his way up and now risks his life daily to protect his community. At one point during his opening, the attorney left the podium to stand behind his client in support.

About halfway through the prosecutor’s opening, a large group of people walked in, which, until they sat down in front of me, I hadn’t realized included Al Sharpton and Nicole Bell, Bell’s fiance and the first witness. (She took his last name after he died). She was a rather soft-spoken young woman, and she cried only when the prosecutor asked her what state Bell was in when she saw him that Saturday morning following the shooting (the answer was, in the morgue). I felt horribly for her and nearly cried myself. But please do not believe the news reports that she cried throughout. I just heard on ABC / 7 News that her testimony the whole way through was “emotional” and teary, and that is a ridiculous untruth, which anyone who was there knows. She kept it together very well, though it appeared to be an understandable struggle. Still, she only broke down once. I am actually rather astounded at the press’s lack of objectivity.

During lunch I overheard two journalists at the table next to me. One asked the other which way he was leaning thus far into trial. At that point we’d heard only openings and one witness who wasn’t on the scene. Plus, they should well know one of the basic foundations of our criminal justice system: the presumption of innocence.

We had two other witnesses today, neither of which gave a huge amount of revealing testimony. The first, an officer who examined the crime scene, displayed some pictures he took and some diagrams he drew of the club and surrounding parking lot and streets. They displayed the photos on some large screens so the audience could see, and not just the judge, who had his own computer screen in front of him. In particular, we saw some pictures of the damage done to the police van after it was hit by the car Bell drove. We still have to hear from the experts about exactly how much damage was caused, but it didn’t seem by the pictures alone to be all that huge — just some bumps and chipped paint, and the radiator underneath was knocked down and the license plate knocked to one side. The other witness was the club’s bouncer, who basically said he heard none of the commotion outside, not all that odd given there were two sets of heavy steel doors meant to block sound.

Justice Cooperman seems pretty untalkative thus far. I don’t envy his position.

4 Comments

  1. Ah…interesting. Thanks for the first-hand account.

  2. Thanks, tonya. This is why, despite your lengthy and impassioned posts about TV shows I don’t like and will never watch :-) I keep coming back to your blog.
    By the way, why don’t you attend an under-the-radar bench trial? Then you can compare it to the Sean Bell trial.

  3. ahh I remember this on the news.
    Man I don’t want to think about trials and stuff, since I’m having to deal with it too (though I’m witness :))

  4. I found your article very interesting. Thank you for posting this.

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