Sean Bell Shooting Trial, Day 14: The Courtroom Heats Up

Early in the day, I wrote in my notes, “courtroom is asleep.” Everyone had dozed off listening to the first witness of the day, NYPD criminalist Michelle Miranda, talk about ballistic damage to Sean Bell’s car. If it was the first time we’d all heard about all the bullet holes, we’d have been wide awake, but this is about the fifth witness to testify to the same thing. People were literally snoring.

But not long after I wrote that, things heated up when Miranda, declared an expert in gunshot residue, began removing clothing worn that morning by Trent Benefield, Joseph Guzman and Sean Bell from giant brown bags marked “biohazard,” and pointing out holes which she tested for gunshot and lead residue. The ballistics evidence is always a bit confusing, because the number of bullet holes in the clothing doesn’t necessarily mean that all of those bullets pierced the wearer’s skin or caused a wound; they could have passed through the clothing, making two different holes the result of one bullet, etc.

Anyway, that said, Miranda found a total of six holes containing elements of lead (making them likely bullet holes) in Benefield’s jeans, most on the back of the pants, one in the front, and one at the waist. Eerily, you could see the bullet holes in the courtroom, even from the back. Guzman’s outer vest bore six bullet holes, most of them on the right side; his pants four, all of them on the back of the pants, both legs; and his long-sleeved undershirt one in the shoulder area. Examining Sean Bell’s jacket, Miranda found a total of 14 holes, six of which tested positive for lead residue. Those six, deemed likely bullet holes, were on the right, back side of the jacket, the hood, and in the right shoulder and arm. While Miranda showed the judge the bullet holes, Nicole, Sean’s fiance, got up and left the courtroom, the door slamming loudly behind her as she went. Soon, the other people in her row left, along with Mr. Bell’s mother and father. Justice Cooperman halted proceedings for a minute or two until the situation calmed down a bit.

Miranda continued, saying that all bullet holes found in all of the clothing tested negative for gunshot residue, meaning that the shooter was not standing “near” or “in close proximity to” the three men in the car during the shooting, though Miranda didn’t define what those terms meant.

The upset in the courtroom at the showing of Bell’s bullet-torn jacket seemed to set the tone for the rest of the day. Mr. Ricco, Detective Isnora’s attorney, got short with Miranda over the word “twisted” regarding a portion of the Altima’s bumper in which a bullet hole was found, and later Paul Martin, counsel for Detective Cooper became visibly angry during his cross examination of the day’s second witness.

Anyway, Miranda also testified that she found additional ballistics evidence in the Altima’s flat tire, trunk, and dashboard, and that, judging by the way in which two bullet holes ended up in the Altima’s engine, the hood would have had to have been raised during the shooting, and a bullet would have had to have gone through the hood to have made a hole in the engine.

No gunshot residue was found inside the Altima; so, there’s no evidence any gun was ever fired from within Bell’s car. Finally, Miranda swabbed two bloodstains from the Altima’s hood and trunk for DNA testing, as well as several bloodstains in the rear seat of the Altima.

Next on was Assistant District Attorney Michelle Cort, a member of the District Attorney’s Integrity Bureau, which examines misconduct by police and DAs. It seemed pretty clear to me that ADA Cort was very unhappy, angry actually, with the police department and was not going to cut them one bit of slack in this case. She gave testimony recounting a meeting she and other ADAs assigned to the case had had with Detective Cooper and his lawyer, Mr. Martin, in January 2007.

According to Cort, Cooper told her at that meeting that, following a field team TAC meeting on the night of 11/24/06, he and the team, in three separate cars, proceeded to Kalua Cabaret, arriving there around 1:00 a.m. Cooper rode in the Camry with Lieutenant Napoli and Detective Headley. There was no police bubble light in the Camry. Cooper told Cort he was unfamiliar with Queens, having only recently been assigned the club initiative in that borough and having only been at Kalua on 11/21 for the team’s one previous prostitution and drug bust there.

Inside Kalua he saw Detective Isnora and Detective Sanchez talking near the front of the bar. Soon a woman with a tattoo reading “Crime” on her shoulder began speaking with Isnora. Cooper also saw that woman sitting next to a man about 6 feet tall and wearing a White Sox hat and lots of jewlery. Isnora told Cooper he saw the tattoo woman reach toward the White Sox man’s waistband and the man say, “I got it covered,” pointing to the waistband. Isnora told Cooper he thought that meant the man had a gun. Cooper didn’t hear that conversation but did see the tattooed woman speaking with the White Sox man.

Around 3:30 a.m., Cooper went to leave the club. When he went outside he didn’t see Sanchez or Isnora. He called Lieutenant Napoli and asked him to come pick him up, which Napoli did. Cooper got into the back passenger-side seat. Napoli told him Isnora had just phoned him about seeing an argument outside between a man standing near an SUV and some other men who were on their way toward Liverpool Street. Napoli radioed to Detective Oliver in the police minivan to “move in closer,” and Napoli also drove toward Liverpool. As they drove down Liverpool Street, Cooper saw three men get into an Altima very quickly. As their car drove past the Altima, Cooper saw one man getting into the rear of that car.

Suddenly, Cooper heard a crash, followed by gunshots. Detective Headley, who was driving, stopped and exited the car. Realizing he had no cover, Cooper slowly opened the passenger-side door, and stepped outside of the car with his right foot, keeping his left foot in the Camry. With his right arm extended out and around the Camry’s door and leaning on the door, crouching behind it, Cooper peeked around to see the Altima’s back window blown out. He fired one shot in the direction from which he heard the shots coming — the Altima, which he had his gun trained on. Cooper, according to Cort, had said that he fired for cover. Cooper never saw Isnora. Napoli remained inside the car, ducking down.

Cooper then saw Benefield running down the street, past the Camry. Headley began to chase him, and Cooper joined in the chase. Because he saw nothing in Benefield’s hands, Cooper never shot at him.

During the meeting, Cort claimed Cooper said he was “certain” he only fired one shot that morning. ADA Charles Testagrossa asked Cooper if his weapon was fully loaded at the time he began his day, and, if so, how many bullets were missing from it. Cooper responded that he should have three more bullets in the weapon than he had, but said he had found the remaining loose rounds at his house in a drawer after the incident.

On cross examination, Cort said Cooper told Testagrossa he normally removed his magazine and bullets from his gun at home each night; some of them had simply remained there, mistakenly. Cort said Cooper was never asked, and never said, whether he felt he was being fired on before he shot. Counsel was incredulous that such a fundamental question was never asked at the meeting.
Finally, the parties stipulated that DNA tests on the bags of marijuana and black gloves found on the street were insufficient for testing. So, we’ll never know whom those bags of pot belonged to.

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