Sean Bell Shooting Trial Day 9: "When I Left My Office I Had No Idea of the Magnitude of This Crime Scene"

Today’s testimony consisted almost entirely of cross examination of the head of the crime scene investigation team, Detective David Rivera. As such, the gist of today was the defense’s attempt to show the crime scene had not been perfectly preserved, some evidence was unaccounted for, some left unexamined, and elements of the early investigation were somewhat shoddy. Rivera admitted that having people walking around within the crime scene — the taped off portion of the streets — may very well jeopardize its integrity and disturb evidence, and he ordered people not to do so, including police officers. Yet several stills taken from Anthony South‘s videos show police officers walking freely within the borders. Black gloves found on the ground and bags filled with “a green leafy substance” were laying in some kind of liquid. Rivera didn’t know what the liquid was and didn’t attempt to use a device called a “crime scope” to determine its makeup. Nor did he move the items, though he knew latent fingerprints would be hard to recover from them if too wet. “It’s a toss-up,” he said. “On one hand you don’t want to move evidence, but on the other,” you might jeopardize the evidence anyway by leaving it where it is. He didn’t measure how close the gloves and bags were to other items on the ground or to Bell’s Altima, and his photos of them were close-ups, so didn’t preserve their overall whereabouts.

Rivera admitted some of his diagrams were not properly drawn. For example, Liverpool Street (the street of the shooting) was two-way, but the way he had cars on both sides of it facing the same way made it appear one-way.

There was a license plate found in the street, far behind the Bell’s Altima, which it was later determined belonged on the Altima’s front bumper. Rivera took no measurements of how far the plate was from the car. His photos showed damage to the rear bumper of the Altima and the gating enclosing a door to a building aligning the street. Rivera didn’t take any paint samples or any other evidence which may have indicated whether the Altima’s bumper had collided with the gate. Nor did he collect any of the glass near the gate to see if, whether pieced together (which can sometimes be done), it may have fit the Altima’s back window, which had shattered. He made no notes of the tire marks on the street behind the Altima. He didn’t use any centering cones with the trajectory rods tracing the path of the bullets into Bell’s car. Such cones help hold in place and maintain correct positioning of the trajectory rods. When asked why he didn’t use the cones, he said he hadn’t brought enough: “when I left my office, I had no idea of the magnitude of this crime scene.” Finally, there was ballistic damage to a Dodge parked on the side of the street, but he didn’t take any pictures of it or otherwise preserve that evidence. At this there were mumbles on the defense side of the spectator area, and a man on the prosecution side said some angry-sounding words under his breath before storming out of the courtroom.

Rivera was called back to the scene of the shooting two and a half months later, on February 12, 2007, because two bullet holes had been found on an aluminum-slotted chain-link fence surrounding a house located at the corner of Liverpool and 95th Avenue. He hadn’t noticed any damage to that fence on November 25th. He tried to shine a lazer light through the holes, which would have shown the presence of lead, which bullets are made of, but the test here was inconclusive, likely because of the passage of time.

A green Ford Explorer had been parked on the south side of 95th Avenue on the morning of the shooting; he’d remembered it when he was having the crime scene tape laid. But, by the time he’d come to that end of the street, to examine it, the Explorer was gone. He made no mention of it in his notes. He later learned it contained two bullet impact marks.

He didn’t know if any vehicles parked on the street, including one owned by Hugh Jensen and another by another friend of the Bell group, was searched for “trap” areas where concealed weapons and other contraband could be placed.

Obviously there are things Rivera failed to examine, and the defense attorneys are great to adduce it all, but investigations are often far from perfect. Items supposedly touched by the perpetrator are never tested for fingerprints, fungible things like drugs and buy money are not properly marked, new technology in recovery of forensic evidence that could reveal more accurate results is not used. The judge will often tell the jury, at the prosecutor’s request, that the police don’t have to use specific methods of investigation and that’s that.

Following Rivera’s testimony, the parties entered into a stipulation (where both sides agree on facts and hence don’t need a witness to testify to them) that the “green leafy substance” in the bags laying on the side of the street was marijuana. No latent fingerprints could be recovered from the bags, so it is unknown whom they belonged to. Some are criticizing the prosecution for introducing such meaningless evidence, thereby watering down their case against the detectives. I think they’re probably just trying to be thorough though, so as not to be accused of leaving something out. As far as the larger claim that the prosecution’s not being aggressive enough, my jury’s still out on that one.


  1. Whew! Just in case you feel like a break from these trial posts, you’ve been tagged.

  2. Thanks Amberlynn! I got tagged by Selly too and I’ve done this one before (albeit when it was 8 things about yourself) — so I’ll try to dig up the old post!

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