Big day yesterday. We finally had a witness yesterday afternoon — an exotic dancer in the club where Sean Bell‘s bachelor party was held — whose testimony went to the ultimate issue in the case (until now, none of the People’s witnesses saw the actual shooting).
I arrived at 8:20 and still had to wait in an outside line, albeit a shorter one. I should try to get an official press pass. Haven’t needed one for all my ballet performances! But if I’m going to write about things like this perhaps it’s worth looking into… Anyway, there was a group already congregated and I got in line behind them. Soon a woman came up and said several “good mornings,” to people, all of whom returned her greeting… except bonehead moi. She did look at me, but I thought she wasn’t talking to me, both because I never think people are actually talking to me when they don’t know me, and also, because, well, she was black and everyone she said hello to was black as well so I kind of assumed they were all together even though she got in line behind me, without chatting further with them. In the courtroom, I saw her sit down on the defendants’ side, up front in the family section, while all the others in line ahead of us sat on the prosecution side. So they weren’t together. It made me happy that people are being kind and generous to each other. There’s no reason not to of course, but this is obviously a stressful time where tensions can easily flare…
This trial really is kind of like a TV drama the way the big story unfolds and audible gasps emanate throughout the courtroom at various points. At one point Justice Cooperman had to ask spectators to quiet down with their commentary, reminding them this was a courtroom.
So, going in order of the day: first two witnesses were bartenders at the Kalua Cabaret, the club where Sean Bell and his friends, Trent Benefield and Joe Guzman, were shot by police, Bell killed, upon leaving via car. Ms. Angulo (sorry, didn’t get her first name; also I’m going to bold names of witnesses to make it easier to see who has testified), speaking through a Spanish interpretor, said she was one of several bartenders working that night, November 25, 2006, and remembered serving Sean Bell one drink, a Long Island Ice Tea, which he ordered from her. The club closes at 4:00 a.m.; she left at 4:30. When she did, she saw ambulances, police cars and yellow police tape blocking off portions of the street around the corner from the club. Sean seemed happy. She never heard shots.
The other bartender, Tina O’Neale, never met Bell that night, but knew his friend, Joe Guzman, who had asked her out. She remembered overhearing a verbal fight that night between a male and female, the two yelling at each other and walking back and forth in the front area of the club before exiting. She later heard about another fight involving a dancer, but didn’t have first-hand knowlege of that. Also, there was a group of guys in the back area (where, according to others was where the Bell party was) who were getting a bit “rowdy,” touching the dancers and being loud. Around 4:00 a.m., as she was preparing to leave, she remembered a woman running into the club “saying something about gunshots,” which she hadn’t heard. She “didn’t pay the shots any mind,” and left the club.
William Bell, Sean’s father, was next to testify. He hadn’t wanted to go to the club, but after his son called him a few times, gave in and went for a couple of hours to help Sean celebrate. He left around 3:00, well before the shooting, so didn’t see any part of that. He said he remembered seeing Detective Cooper (one of the three defendants), in the club.
I just want to take a moment and say for the record detectives Cooper and Isnora are black men, as are their attorneys (both of whom are real characters, both of whom can actually be comical at points while still being very formidable cross examiners). Detective Oliver is white. There’s a team of several attorneys but the main ones are the two I just mentioned; Oliver’s is a white man. I just say this because I feel the media is making this into a white versus black thing and it’s so not. Everytime I see the detectives pictured on the news or in papers, it’s usually only Oliver, or he is in the fore, and any time an attorney is interviewed it’s one of the older white men. There are people of various races sitting on both sides of the courtoom, though it’s hard to tell which side people are supporting, if any; the courtoom’s so packed everyone’s just trying to find a seat. Anyway, back to trial.
Last witness of the morning was the colorful Harold James, a smallish man in his late 30s with cornrows, who’s known — rather widely — in the community as “Bone.” Bone was also there that night but left before the shooting, so didn’t provide any testimony going to the ultimate issue either. He knew Bell but seemed to be better friends with the others in his party, such as Joe Guzman and Trent Benefield; everytime he said Bell’s name, he called him “God bless Sean Bell.” Bone has three prior convictions involving cocaine sales. In one of the more humorous points of the day, Isnora’s attorney (one of the characters) asked Bone on cross, “These are only the three times you happened to get caught, right. I mean, you’re not telling Judge Cooperman that these are the only three times you’ve ever sold cocaine, are you?”
I thought, oh no, be careful what you say!
Looking at first a bit like a deer in headlights, he thought for a few seconds, looked at the judge, looked back at the attorney, and said, “I’m not telling him nothin’.” Laughter spread through the courtroom and even normally emotion-less Cooperman cracked a smile.
The defense attorneys really went nutty with these priors. I say nutty because focusing on former convictions like this is normally something a defense attorney would do with a jury, to discredit the witness; a judge really just needs to be told once — he can remember; he knows what prior convictions for what crime mean and don’t mean — making me think much of this examination was for the spectators and press. They really do have a jury of sorts here.
Anyway, to say Bone was a regular at Kalua is an understatement. He was there several night per week, bringing people there, bringing lots of cash to the owners, “makin’ it rain,” and kind of herding the dancers, all of whom he knew well, around to various parts of the club to perform for friends, parties he’d brought in, to maximize their monetary intake, and of course his friends’ happiness. Though he insisted he never received payment from the club, he had told the Grand Jury he was “affiliated” with it, a dispute arising over what exactly that meant. He’d taken the Bell party to the back of the club, where he arranged for dancers to come back and entertain. In contrast to O’Neale, he said there was no rowdiness back there. He bought Bell a Long Island ice tea.
Bone left at 3:20 to pick up his “lady,” so also leaving before the shooting. One of the most conspicuous points of his testimony was his statement that sometime after 4 a.m, he received a call from Sean Spencer, the club’s bouncer who testified yesterday, in which Spencer told him there were a lot of shots outside the club, a van was seeing going around the corner, and he should come back immediately. He and Spencer had each other’s phone numbers, he affirmed. But yesterday Spencer, who has prior convictions for selling cocaine and soliciting prostitution, had strongly asserted that he never spoke with Bone, hadn’t spoken with him after the shooting, and in fact didn’t believe he even had Bone’s phone number. Bone also contradicted Spencer in another aspect: Spencer had insisted that he searched everyone for weapons before they were allowed admittance into the club, including Bone. But Bone said he was rarely searched since they all knew him well there, and he wasn’t searched for weapons the night of the shooting.
When Bone got to the scene that night, he saw Joe Guzman on the ground, face down, and Trent Benefield in the ambulance, which he followed to the hospital. He admitted lying to the officer in the ambulance, telling him he was Trent’s brother, but only in an effort to get him to allow Trent to speak with his mother on the phone.
It was the afternoon witness who has given the most pertinent, emotionally upsetting and, in my mind, heartfelt testimony thus far, though it wasn’t free of contradictions. Thirty-two-year-old mother of three Marseilles Payne, or “Trini,” was working as an exotic dancer that night at the club. She had one prior for second-degree assault, which she said was the result of stabbing her ex-lover who was beating her. She now works for the Department of Homeless Services as a medical assistant, and in fact, showed up in her scrubs. She quit working as a dancer at the club shortly after the shooting. She was good friends with Bell and all of the men in his party, having grown up with them in the same neighborhood.
That night, she began dancing on the front stage, but Bone shortly led her to the back, to Bell’s bachelor party. There were about 10 members of the party in all. She remembered serving Bell a beer. He seemed happy.
At some point that night there was a fight in the dancers’ changing room / back bathroom when a dancer brought her boyfriend into the room. A couple of other dancers needed the room to change for their next number. One of the dancers instructed the man to leave, as the room was for dancers only, and the man slapped her hard across the face. She and he began fist-fighting and Payne and her friend got between them and tried to break it up. Eventually they were able to push the man out the door.
Around 3:45 last call was announced and by 4 all customers had left. Payne went into the back and changed clothes, then waited for her night’s pay at the DJ booth. Trent had made tentative plans with her earlier to go to a restaurant for food after leaving the club. As she left the club, a man outside standing next to a black truck walked up to her, told her he enjoyed watching her dance and wanted to pay her to spend some time with him. She told him she “doesn’t do dates.” Though three weeks earlier a dancer had been kidnapped from the club, and others robbed, Payne wasn’t that worried about the man because she saw two male friends standing nearby. The man who asked her for the date got in front of her and walked with her but left her alone when she stopped to talk to her friends. She left them, rounded the corner where her car was parked, opened the trunk and put her dance bag inside. On the back window of her car was written “RIP Dallas,” for her boyfriend who had died in a shooting over a parking space only weeks earlier. She broke into tears upon relating this. “He was my best friend in the world,” she said.
While at her car, she saw Trent across the street getting into the rear passenger side of Sean Bell’s car. He called out “hey” to her, and she assumed he was going to drive up to her car and they could decide where to go for food. She said back to him, “okay,” and was just closing her trunk when Bell’s vehicle began to pull out. She said she heard a noise “like an engine revving up” and tires screeching. A minivan came up from behind her and crashed into Bell’s car. A man emerged from the driver’s side of the minivan, went to the front of the van and fired three shots into Bell’s car. Payne turned around and ran around the corner and hid in some bushes in the front yard of a residence, where she heard more gunfire, many shots; said she’s “never heard anything like it before.” Gasps spread throughout the audience at this. Payne claimed she never heard anything precede the shots, never heard anyone say “police, stop” or anything of the sort. She also never saw Detective Isnora, who according to opening statements — I’m pretty sure of both parties — was struck by Bell’s car when it pulled out. She also claimed Bell’s car didn’t back into reverse, going toward Isnora, and eventually hit the back wall, which was asserted in openings. When asked on cross how the shooter was able to get in front of the van, she said after the crash both cars backed up a little bit.
After the shots ended, Payne got up and ran back to the club. On the way she passed her friends again, who asked her why she was running. They hadn’t heard the shots. She ran into the club and screamed to Sean Spencer and others inside, “they were shooting, they’re shooting them, the cops are shooting them.” But she also testified that she hadn’t, at that time, realized the shooters were police officers.
After she collected herself, she went back to her car and tried to leave, but the area was filled with an ambulance, a helicopter and police who had now created a crime scene, of which her car was a part. She couldn’t take it. She saw the man who’d asked her on the date running down the street, now with a police badge dangling around his neck. Crying, she said she saw people from the car being lifted into an ambulance. (At this point, female members of Bell’s family burst into tears and were escorted by male members of the group outside of the courtroom.)
After someone in the club told police Payne had seen the whole thing, the police, she claimed, forced her to accompany them to the precinct. She told them, untruthfully, that she hadn’t seen anything, knew nothing, and needed to go home to her children. But they kept her there for 18 hours, wouldn’t let her talk to her children on the phone and wouldn’t give her anything to eat the whole time. She wasn’t released until midnight, after she gave in and gave a statement.
When asked on cross examination why she was so hesitant to give the police any information up front, since she wasn’t inculpating her friends with anything she said, she said simply that she didn’t want to get involved. When pressed by defense attorneys, who asked her if, not knowing who the shooters were, she feared her statement may somehow inculpate her friends of wrongoing, she insisted that was not the reason she didn’t talk. She then broke down, in what to me was some of the most heartfelt, saddest testimony of the day. She let loose on the defense attorney, screaming that she didn’t want to get involved, she didn’t want to be a part of this, she wanted a better life, she wanted to get her kids out of there, she hated having to be involved now, she had to relocate to a different borough because of this, she just wanted nothing to do with anything, she simply wanted … out…” The attorney stopped questioning and we took a break before the third attorney’s cross. Ms. Payne exited the courtroom to collect herself.
While it still didn’t make complete sense to me as to why she told the police up front she’d seen nothing, her sorrow and extreme frustration with her life — a life filled with shootings, violence, death, beatings, fights, struggle to make ends meet, fear for her daughters — was all too clear. I felt so horrible for her. Well, she’s now in a different place, with a new residence, a new medical job, so hopefully she’s on her way.
I saw a defense attorney on television news last night saying a lot of this would come down to credibility; whom the judge would find the most believable since testimony was so conflicting. It’s true that there are so many interested witnesses in this — everyone who possesses pertinent information seems to either be a friend of the victims or one of the accused. I feel like the biggest key though will be ballistics evidence, especially that regarding the cars — which was speeding, who crashed into whom, the paths of the respective cars — experts can make good determinations of these sorts of things. That and Isnora’s medical records showing any injuries from being struck by a car.
One other thing I want to say about Ms. Payne’s testimony regarding what went on at the precinct: I’ve seen numerous claims by defendants that police officers coerced them into making confessions by keeping them in solitary cells for hours on end, making threats, preventing them from leaving until they confessed, depriving them of food and water, and then, when they went to give in, feeding them details for their “confessions.” No one ever seems to take those claims seriously; people roll their eyes and accuse the defendant of making it all up because of course police officers never coerce or suggest, never distort or exaggerate. And then later, after the person has been convicted, new evidence comes to light showing that the defendant couldn’t have committed the crime because in fact he was somewhere else at the time, in another state even, or evidence comes to light incuplating someone else. It made me really upset to hear all the gasps in the courtroom when Ms. Payne recounted her day-long ordeal in the precinct. This trial is almost surreal; it’s like that Joyce Carol Oates short story where the black college student is condescending to the white one without knowing it, saying things like “it’s so great that you’re here. We know you’ll have to work hard to keep up because of your disadvantages, but you can do it…” “Double Negative” it’s called, or something like that. Right now in NY interrogations do not have to be videotaped in order for the confession they can produce to be admissible as evidence in court. There’s a movement underway to change this though, and many states have passed laws requiring interrogations to be taped. It is argued that this serves not only defendants but the police as well; this way they can prove a confession was not coerced and that they did nothing to suggest key evidence. It seems to me that there is no viable reason for not requiring interrogations to be taped; confessions are already videotaped, just not the process that led there. So the technology is already there. If people like Al Sharpton are really serious about change, about ending police misconduct and brutality against black men, and not merely participating in spectacle, supporting efforts at making this law in NY and throughout the country is a good place to start.