Sean Bell Shooting Trial Day 15: "I'm Not On Trial Here."

“That’s right!” someone sitting on the prosecution side of the spectator’s area shouted out on Wednesday after key witness Fabio Coicou (a/k/a, the all-important “SUV guy”) said the above quoted words. Coicou was responding to defense attorney Anthony Ricco’s question about his prior convictions. But Ricco was allowed to ask the question not in order to turn the tables and put a prosecution witness on trial, but to call into question his credibility. I.e.: if someone has previously been convicted of a crime, that shows a certain willingness to put his interest above society’s, and possibly to lie under oath. Anyway, legally legitimate as Ricco’s question was, it also made sense to me that Coicou (and other prosecution witnesses who’ve testified and been questioned about their priors), felt the tables were being turned, fingers were being pointed back at them instead of those who pulled their triggers. And that obviously made sense to the person in the spectator seats as well.

Regarding Coicou, though, his testimony and personality were very unreadable, very all over the place and in the end, inscrutable. I couldn’t figure out if he was trying to be a smartass and rile up the spectators, of if he genuinely was worried he was going to get into trouble (he was, after all, the person who got into a contentious argument with Sean Bell, making the detectives fear there was going to be a shoot-out between the two parties) and was giving off this false bravado as a defense mechanism.

Anyway, here is his testimony. I’ll break it down into direct and cross. Direct first.

Coicou is 30 years old, originally from Haiti, and moved to Brooklyn with his family at age 10. He later moved to Far Rockaway, Queens, where he lived in November of 2006 and where he still lives with his ex-wife and their two young children. Coicou is a certified emergency medical technician and has worked as a funeral director. He had no prior felony convictions, but did have two prior misdemeanors — one for a petit larceny he committed in Nassau County in 1998; the other, a 2006 conviction for criminal trespass in Georgia.

Coicou had been to Kalua Cabaret before November 24th; he’d been there the previous Sunday. LaToya Oliver, his girlfriend, was working in the club as a dancer. On that Sunday, he’d driven her to the club, and as she danced, he parked around the corner and slept, then returned after the club closed to pick her up and take her home. He didn’t go inside the club with her since the club’s owners frowned on the presence of dancers’ boyfriends because it may lead to jealousy. His vehicle was a black 1998 Ford Expedition with customized just about everything (tail, skirt, rims, windshield visor, grill, headlights, scoop, hood, shades, etc. etc.).

On November 24, 2006, driving his 1998 Ford Expedition, he took LaToya to Kalua, and, as he did before, dropped her off, then drove around the corner to nap. Around 1:00 – 2:00 a.m. (before the club had closed), he went in. Before doing so he was thoroughly checked for weapons.

The club was packed and there were a lot of men drinking and looking at the female dancers, particularly in the back of the club. He later learned the group in back included Sean Bell, Joseph Guzman, and Trent Benefield, but hadn’t known any of them at the time.

Around 3:40 a.m., Coicou left, retrieved his SUV, parked in front of the club, waited for LaToya. There were many people now standing outside; it looked like “the whole club was in front of the place.” Coicou stepped out of his SUV and stood at its rear passenger door. Sean Bell, followed by Benefield, walked back into the club.

When Bell walked back out, Coicou claimed he said, under his breath, that alcohol was taking control of the situation. As Bell and Benefield passed by Coicou, Benefield said to Coicou that he was not letting alcohol take control of the situation. Bell got “chest to chest” with Coicou and also said he was not letting alcohol take control. Coicou backed up, then said to Bell, “I have money inside the club; I have bread in there,” referring to LaToya. He said he called her “money” because she is “taking care of me”. Bell gave him “a look like he understood,” then began talking a group of about 7-8 friends.

Bell again approached Coicou and asked him where he was from. Coicou responded, “A.” Bell asked what “A” was and Coicou said, “Atlanta Georgia.” Talking to the whole group, Coicou said he was now staying in Far Rockaway and this SUV was his vehicle in case they see him again. He held both hands in his vest pockets and said, “I’m not here to fight.” Guzman said “I’m from Far Rockaway too, from O.V.”, which Coicou took to mean Ocean Village, a part of Far Rockaway. Coicou said “Oh.”

Bell and Guzman and their group then began walking away.

And that was the end of that.

Coicou noticed two guys standing behind the Bell group, who were clearly not with them. One guy, a bald man (whom he later learned was Detective Sanchez), was “playing with his phone.” The two men didn’t go anywhere, but stood there making cell phone calls. Coicou had seen Sanchez in the club before.

The Bell group “scattered.” A few members of the group stood at the end of the block, looking back toward the club; others had gone around the corner. Wondering why the group had dispersed so quickly, Coicou got into his car and thought, “let me get out of here.” He drove down to the end of the block, and, before rounding the corner, saw Guzman, about to cross the street. Guzman directed him to go ahead, so Coicou drove on and circled the block, before returning to the club and parking again in front of it. While waiting there, Coicou saw someone, whom he thought was a woman, run up the block and jump into some bushes in a nearby backyard. He never saw her again. Soon LaToya emerged from the club and got into the car. She told him someone had just been shot. When they got home and watched the news, Coicou realized the people who’d been shot were the ones he’d spoken with in front of the club.

Coicou insisted he never heard any threats, never heard anyone say they were going to get a gun or a “gat”. The police had come to speak with LaToya but she refused to talk to them, feeling too much pressure. She soon returned to Atlanta because of the pressure.

Okay, now Coicou’s testimony on cross.

As mentioned at the top of the post, Anthony Ricco, defense counsel for Detective Isnora, began to ask about Coicou’s prior convictions, when Coicou quickly shot back, “yes, but I’m not on trial here.” Ricco decided not to ask the judge to direct Coicou to answer with a simple ‘yes or no’ and instead moved on to his Grand Jury testimony. Before reading Grand Jury testimony into the record, Ricco asked Coicou, “you swore to tell the truth, both to the Grand Jury and today, correct?” — a typical introductory question to the elicitation of Grand Jury testimony which is likely going to differ in some way from what the witness has just claimed at trial. Instead of saying “yes,” Coicou said, “and your point is?” which drew laughter from the spectators, but not from Justice Cooperman. Moments later when Ricco began another question, and Coicou opened his mouth, Cooperman said in an annoyed tone, “Just listen to the question.”

Such a clash of cultures. I have no idea what a jury would think if there was one — obviously it would depend who was on that jury — but an older white judge is going to have absolutely no patience with witnesses who smart off, who seem to disrespect the system. I don’t know if any judge would, actually. But then, maybe Coicou just didn’t get the system. Maybe it just doesn’t seem to serve him.

I overheard people on the defense / police side say thank god a judge is hearing the case; you don’t ever take a jury unless you’re guilty. I’ve never heard any attorney advise their client to forego their right to a jury trial. But then, I only know public defenders, who represent the poor, largely black, population. Who represent the Guzmans and the Coicous. I’ve handled plenty of criminal appeals; I obviously only got an appeal if there’s been a conviction (otherwise there’s nothing to appeal). So, juries do convict when the evidence is there. But juries also — usually — look very carefully at all of the evidence, deliberate at length, consider the charges separately, and take their role seriously. If the attorneys are good and the system is fair, there will be a good cross-representation of society on the jury. Something tells me a good many jurors would also understand where witnesses like Coicou are coming from – the fear and distrust of the system, of attorneys and police, the eagerness to mouth off when you feel like you’re the one in trouble and are being treated unfairly. But while they’d understand anger, I still think they’d be critical of inconsistencies and contradictions.

When Ricco continued on, asking him about his criminal background, Coicou again said “I’m not on trial here,” to which the woman in the spectator area said, “That’s right,” followed by mumbles and unrest on both sides of the courtroom. Interestingly, neither the judge nor any of the courtroom officers quieted down the room.

Coicou had a gun in Atlanta, but obtained a permit for it, possessing it legally. He has no permit in NY for a gun, and hence, doesn’t carry one. He didn’t have a gun that night. He held his hands in his pockets, he maintained, to demonstrate peace, so the group would leave him alone. “Uh-HUH,” declared a female spectator. More unrest. Still no demands to “quiet down.”

Ricco asked him if he knew what a “gat” was; Coicou said, “no, what is it?” and told Ricco to get a dictionary.

If you listen to Coicou’s Grand Jury testimony, it seems like he was a lot more scared of the Bell group that night than he wanted to admit at trial, which makes no sense since he’s not friends with them. Ricco read some of that Grand Jury testimony: “I said to them I’m not here to fight. I had my hands in my pockets because I was trying to tell them to calm down. People don’t like to be told to stay calm.” He “thought they looked impatient, rowdy” and that they were “making a scene.” There was “a lot of drinking involved, and if you talk to a drunk person the wrong way … I was trying to hint we are grown men, there’s no reason to act this way.” He was trying not to have a “situation” with them, he was trying to hint to them that the bald guy might be a police officer. He was concerned that if something went wrong, a bunch of people would jump on him, outnumber him, “just like in the situation here, with a bunch of lawyers.”

Coicou also claimed he never saw anyone peeking around the corner, but his Grand Jury testimony belies that. “I got into my car because of the people peeking at the corner. I got concerned. If I didn’t move, someone might come around the corner.” He felt the group’s splitting into two parts — those who went around the corner and left his sight and those who stood “peeking” back at him — could have been “a diversion.” He “was concerned because he didn’t know where they went.” He thought they “were going to get whatever to do whatever.” So, he drove around the block, past the “people who were still peeking.”

Coicou also met with the Assistant District Attorneys on January 17, 2007, shortly after the shooting and before he testified before the Grand Jury. He gave them a statement then, which also contradicted his trial testimony. He claimed at trial that he didn’t recall ever telling the ADAs then that he worried the men were coming back for him, that some of them were peeking around the corner, that he was worried they were “going to go get whatever to do whatever,” or that anyone said, “we’ll get my gat.” However, the ADA’s notes reflected that Coicou did indeed tell them all of those things at the meeting, including, most importantly, the “we’ll go get my gat,” to which the DA stipulated.

Ricco tried to discuss further Coicou’s thoughts that the group splitting up might be a “diversion.” Coicou said that when he drove around the block, he saw nothing was up, so there was obviously no diversion; he “didn’t see anyone doing the diversion.” I guess the way he said this sounded funny because there was some laughter in the courtroom, and Ricco said, “Mr. Coicou, isn’t it true you sometimes use big words you don’t know the meaning of?” Coicou retorted, “I guess so. I’m just trying to be like you.” More laughter. Ricco looked dumbfounded.

Coicou clearly had a thing for Ricco; he would not stop taunting that attorney. Once Mr. Cullerton (Detective Oliver’s attorney) began questioning, Mr. Coicou gave him very little crap. Perhaps he was just tired by that point. But Mr. Ricco is black, Mr. Cullerton white. And when Mr. Martin, (Detective Cooper’s attorney) who is black as well, did his cross, Coicou’s snappishness returned. Martin asked him if, with all this talk of his girlfriend being his “bread” and his “money”, he was in fact her pimp. Coicou asked for a definition of pimp, then asked Mr. Martin if he was one. More laughter in the courtroom. At this point, one guard hushed people.

On redirect, Coicou stated he had absolutely no interest in either side of this trial. He didn’t know anyone involved, didn’t know Bell and his family or friends. And, his brother is a police officer.

Additionally, Dr. Daniel O’Connor, the orthopedic surgeon who operated on Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, testified. Benefield had two gunshot wounds to his right buttock — one where the bullet entered, one where it exited. He likewise had two bullet wounds — entry and exit — to his right calf. He sustained one bullet wound to his left calf, and that bullet struck and lodged in his tibia bone, fracturing it. O’Connor repaired the fracture by placing a metal rod into Benefield’s leg. X-rays of Benefield’s leg with the metal rod and screws holding it together were shown in court. Heads shook in disgust on the prosecution side of the spectator area. O’Connor said it would have been difficult for Benefield to have run on the leg following the shooting, but with a rush of adrenalin, he could have hopped on his right leg and dragged the left along.

Guzman sustained multiple wounds, O’Connor said, but his fractured left tibia was the injury O’Connor operated on. O’Connor performed the same surgery on Guzman as he had on Benefield, inserting a metal rod into the left leg to repair the fracture and stabilize the bone.

The beginning of Detective Cooper’s Grand Jury testimony was also read into the record, but since it concluded the following day, I think I’m going to save that for Day 16. I’m tired…

One Comment

  1. Thanks for these summaries.

    It seems clear to me that this tragic situation is driven by the police looking too hard for criminal activity and seeing almost anything as indicative of criminal INTENT and they act pro actively to prevent “something”.

    Unfortunately they are way too quick to use deadly force and their reading of intent has proved to be wrong again and again and they are always expecting to be given the “benefit of the doubt.”

    They went to catch a prostitution operation and or a drug transaction. Both of these are victimless crimes in the first place and the use of deadly force seems to be way over the top.

    When a serious long term investigation HAS assembled an indication of criminal activity, the cops should simply go and arrest the person(s) in the safest manner and put the fewest innocents at risk.

    I don’t think these cops had a case for prostitution or drugs and I don’t think that this was the environment to arrest them. This is completely INCOMPETANT and irressponsible police and detective work not to mention the wasteful and wrongheadedness of prostitution busts.

    You didn’t see the cops but in on Spitzer with guns blazing did you? They gather their “evidence” and confronted him and did it without guns blazing, or even an arrest.

    These cops and their superiors should all be held accountable right on up to those who set up these programs.

    Since blacks are not only the victims of crime in their neighborhood, all neighborhoods for that matter, but also profiled it is perfectly understandable why they would fear cops, and take measures to protect themselves.

    This is just another expression of racism and it doesn’t matter that the shooter was black. He buys into the narrative and supports it completely.

    Guilty as charged.

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