Sean Bell Shooting Trial Day 11: "And You Felt Better When the Police Arrived, Isn't That Correct?"

The above was said by my favorite attorney, defense counsel Anthony Ricco, when he asked the prosecution’s last witness of the day, on cross, whether she was relieved when the police arrived at her house to ensure she was okay and to search for an errant bullet that pierced her living room window during the shooting. The witness, Maria Rodrigues, nodded almost instinctually, then looked out into the crowd of spectators and realized the context. “Yeah, yeah,” she continued, under her breath. I personally feel better when the police arrive after I’ve called 911 (which has only happened twice in my life — once in college and once over something that happened not long ago here), but then I’ve always lived in largely white, middle-class areas where the police are almost always a positive presence…

Today’s spectators included a group of local high-school students from a school specializing in criminal justice, and their two very enthusiastic teachers. Sweet. And it turned out to be a good day for them to attend because Al Sharpton made a rare appearance (this is the only third time I’ve seen him here); he stayed for the morning testimony then gave a press conference at lunchtime outside and was gone by the afternoon.

Anyway, all of today’s testimony consisted of eyewitness accounts of people who lived on Liverpool Street, where the shooting occurred. Well, almost all. First on was Detective Christopher Florio from the crime scene unit who responded to North Shore Hospital to photograph the officers involved and their injuries. So, full length photos of the five plainclothes officers who fired weapons that night were shown, followed by a photo of the cut thumb of Detective Carey (not charged here), and another picture of Detective Isnora’s smallish shin abrasion sustained when Bell’s car hit him. We also saw photos Florio took of all five guns and ammo recovered. There was a small amount of dried blood near the front of Detective Isnora’s Glock. Update: I hadn’t thought much of this evidence (the small amount of blood on the gun) when it was presented in court because I thought it could have come from a number of places, but according to news reports here and here and here, apparently some, like Al Sharpton, calling the “bloody gun” a “smoking gun”, are surmising that it meant Detective Isnora was shooting from very close range, enabling him to see the men in Bell’s car were weaponless. I think we’ll have to wait for other evidence, though, including tests indicating whose blood was on that gun, to derive any meaning from it).

Next was Detective Thomas Forte, also from CSU, who examined ballistic damage to the Green Ford Explorer parked on the side of the street. Because the car was never examined by the original CSU detective, Detective Rivera, the car’s owner Bernardino Dossantos (who would testify next) brought it to the Task Force’s garage, leaving Forte to examine it two weeks after the shooting. Forte found on it two bullet impact marks (meaning the bullet hit the area but didn’t pierce it and make an actual hole): one on the front passenger quarterpanel and one on the rear passenger-side door. Both impact marks tested positive for lead (bullet) presence.

Dossantos, the owner of the Explorer who lived around the corner from Liverpool, testified next. From Portugal, he could probably have used an interpretor; he had some real trouble understanding complicated, nuanced questions, particularly those posed by the defense. Nevertheless, he was pretty funny. Speaking in his thick accent, he was one of those charmingly authentic, no nonsense people. He literally came from his job as a construction worker, covered in dust, sweat, and yellow safety vest, and he made it clear up front he was missing some valuable work time here. The attorneys were good humored and promised they would hurry.

Dossantos was sleeping at 4:15 a.m. on 11/25/06, when his wife heard shots and woke him. He then heard about 8-10 shots himself, coming from Liverpool. He dressed and walked out onto that street, where he saw Lieutenant Napoli’s Toyota Camry. Three men were behind it — two standing above a black man, Bennefield, who was lying on the ground, bleeding from the head. As emergency workers helped him into an ambulance, Bennefield said, “watch my legs, watch my legs.”

Dossantos’s wife told him there was some damage to his Explorer, which was parked in front of his house on the side of the street. He claimed he left the Explorer in that position the whole day, only moving it the following morning, which contradicts Rivera’s earlier testimony that he couldn’t examine the Explorer on the day of the shooting because it had been moved from within the crime scene tape before he could get to it. In any event, Dossantos brought the truck down to the NYPD Task Force’s garage two weeks after the shooting. “Of course I bring it, I want pay!” he said, all seriousness. Everyone laughed. He looked out at us like we were nuts, before assuring us the NYPD did indeed compensate him for the damage. When asked if he had walked around his house to examine it for any damage, he frowned and said, “No, no, not my house, I rent, I don’t care to look,” as if it was a crazy question.

In the afternoon, the court heard from Robert Hernandez, who lived in the house at the corner of Liverpool and 95th Avenue and whose aluminum-filled chain link fence sustained two bullet holes. At 4:14 a.m. on 11/25/06, he was in his living room trying to find the remote control to shut off his TV when he heard shouting followed by a gunshot. He couldn’t make out the contents of the shouts, but heard two male voices. He then heard a gunshot, a 3/4 of a second pause, then a barrage of gunfire. He looked out his living room window to see Napoli’s Camry with its headlights on and the front doors open and a light-skinned man wearing a blue sweater and jeans crouching behind one of the doors. The man suddenly turned and ran down the street.

Hernandez looked down the street and saw a man holding a silver gun leaning against a black Honda parked on the side of the street. He then saw two dark-skinned men standing next to his fence and above another man, Bennefield, who was lying on the ground complaining that his legs hurt.

One of the standing men said to Bennefield, “Why you runnin’?”

Bennefield said, “I didn’t do nothing.”

Standing man said, “If you didn’t do nothing then why you running?”

Hernandez then heard someone else say “The cops are coming,” before hearing sirens.

Hernandez ran upstairs to get a better view. From there he saw Bell’s Altima collided with the police minivan.

About five minutes later Hernandez saw several uniformed officers in the area, including one who was inspecting his backyard with a flashlight. Later that morning, Hernandez went downstairs to survey the damage. He saw a bullethole on both sides of his corner fence — the Liverpool side and the side bordering 95th Avenue, which intersected with Liverpool. He saw Dossantos’s Explorer across the street bearing a dent and a neighbor’s minivan parked down the street with a shattered window.

Hernandez’s wife, whom Hernandez directed to call 911, heard a car screeching away. Her 911 call was played in court. She sounded very meek and frightened, saying, “people are yelling, cars are screeching, there are many shots.”

Significantly, at the time he witnessed the events, Hernandez hadn’t known any of the men he saw — the man leaning on the Honda, the man crouching behind the Camry door, or the two men standing over Bennefied — were police officers. He thought the whole thing was a “gang situation.” “Most of the guys who go into Kalua Club are thugs,” he said.

Before the final witness for today, Justice Cooperman held a short recess so that he could briefly take care of another matter on his docket, which he sometimes does. I had to run to the bathroom, and, by the time I returned, they were already in the middle of the matter, but it sounded like Cooperman and the lawyers were trying to schedule a man’s sentencing date. After they agreed on a day, the man, black, was taken, in handcuffs, out of the room by officers. As he went he looked out at us, at the ridiculously large, packed courtroom. Something tells me his trial wasn’t quite so well attended. A woman sitting down the row from me stood up and waved out to him. He looked at her and for the split second they had, locked eyes. As soon as he was taken from the room, she sat briefly, looking forlorn, then quickly rose and, excusing herself, passed by me. I felt so horrible for her, as I always feel for the women — the wives and mothers of the defendants.

But more, this man, who had obviously been held for his sentencing date in Rikers, scruffy, hair unwashed, and in torn clothes, was such a contrast to the three defendant detectives in this case, all of them dressed in expensive-looking suits — particularly Detective Oliver — clean, polished, well cared for. I’ve often seen the detectives leaving the nice Italian restaurant down the street from the courthouse with their lawyers and /or a large group of men from the Police Detectives Endowment Association, all of whom are present for support in the courtroom as well. I realize there are reasons why some defendants are remanded to Rikers to await trial and sentencing and others are not — some are considered serious flight risks or a danger to the community or can’t make bail — but it’s still sad there’s such a sharp disparity of treatment.

Last was the aformentioned Maria Rodrigues, who lived in the house on Liverpool whose living room window was pierced by a bullet. At 4:15 on that morning she was sleeping in her bedroom, located at the back of the house, when she heard a noise. Her husband woke too and told her he thought they were gunshots. Soon she heard the sound of breaking glass, which she knew was coming from her living room. She called out to her teenage children to stay in bed, in their rooms. She thought she heard about 10-12 shots in all, and after they were finished, she heard someone yell out, “get down” or “stay down.”

Minutes later, she heard a knock at her door. A voice identified itself as that of a police officer, who’d come to make sure the family was all right. She opened the door, told the officers she was okay, and they searched for a bullet, not finding anything. She saw her window was broken. Later that day another detective came by, finding the bullet in a lampshade near the window.

Outside, she saw that her husband’s car, a blue Mitsubishi parked in front of the house, had a partially shattered windshield, and it looked as if a bullet had entered through the back driver’s side door, passed through the front seat’s headrest, and exited through the front window.

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