Today the court heard from Johmell Henkerson, the brother-in-law of Nicole, Sean Bell’s fiance, and an eyewitness to part of the shooting; and the Grand Jury testimony of defendant Detective Michael Oliver, the detective whom the press has focused on the most, as he fired 31 of the 50 shots, though he was not the first to fire.
Up front, I just have to say, I find it unsettling how the prosecution witnesses are being villified. While a witness’s prior convictions are fodder for cross-examination (because legally the judge may use such priors to determine the witness’s overall credibility), the defense attorneys are questioning, and very harshly, about kinds of inflammatory things that have little to no relevance to this case: the witness’s belonging to a rap group in which he created songs about “thug” life (since when is art criminal?); a witness’s long-ago possession of a gun; a witness’s general lifestyle; here, a shooting victim’s vaguely possible criminal activity in that shooting, where charges haven’t even been filed. The issue here, at least regarding the top charges, is whether the detectives were “justified” in shooting. Justification is legalese for self-defense. So, whether they believed deadly force was about to be used against them, and whether that belief was reasonable, from the point of view of a person in the same or similar circumstances. So, making the eyewitness friends of Sean Bell and Joseph Guzman out to be general “bad guys” who have experience with guns has nothing to do with whether the detectives felt threatened right before they shot and whether that threat was reasonable from a person in their shoes. They didn’t know Guzman and his friends beforehand, so it wasn’t like they knew he had a reputation for violence, which could have informed their fear. This was the first time Isnora and Oliver had ever seen Guzman.
Anyway, Johmell Henkerson: he talked slowly and quietly and it was a bit hard to hear him. He also seemed on the verge of tears throughout much of his direct testimony. 30 years old, he’s a medical technician who assists patients with kidney problems, and his wife, Shelby, is Nicole’s sister. He’s known Sean since 2000. Henkerson has two prior felonies, 10 years old — from the mid nineties — one for possession of a controlled substance and one for unlawful imprisonment, and two misdemeanors for loitering.
He met Sean earlier in the evening of November 24th, when they’d celebrated with some egg nog and brandies. Henkerson left to go watch his children while his wife attended Nicole’s bachelorette party. (Another thing made a big deal of on cross: that party was cancelled because the male stripper couldn’t make it, as if hiring a male stripper for one’s bachelorette party has anything to do with whether the detectives thought Guzman had a gun…) Anyway, later that evening, Guzman called him and he picked him up in his Mercedes SUV and brought him to Kalua for the party. However, Henkerson then had an underage cousin with him, who was denied admission to the club. He left to take the cousin home, leaving Guzman there.
Later, he met up with his friend Gene Nelson, and the two of them went back to Kalua, except they arrived so late that it didn’t seem worth paying the cover to go in. So he and Nelson waited outside to meet up with the Bell party. He parked around the corner from the club and he and Nelson walked up to the front entrance and waited for everyone to leave. He noticed Isnora and Sanchez standing to his left, talking. Isnora was wearing a “skull cap,” he said. Soon, Coicou arrived with his big black SUV, the music blaring.
Shortly thereafter, his friends — Hugh, Larenzo, Benefield, Guzman, Bell, and Kollore — all emerged from the club. Bell went back inside because he’d forgotten his hat. When he came back out, he “exchanged words” with Coicou. At one point, Coicou and Bell were standing very close to each other and their body language changed; Sean had been in a good mood when he left the club, but Henkerson now saw that their discussion had “elevated to another kind of situation.”
Coicou had his hands in his pockets, and with one hand, he pointed out at Bell as if he had a gun (Henkerson demonstrated this in the courtroom — he pointed his finger out, through the pocket, as if making clear there was a gun in that pocket and Coicou was aiming it right at Bell.) Henkerson couldn’t hear everything they were saying, but heard either Bell or Guzman say “I don’t give a fuck who you waiting for,” “fuck that bitch you waiting for,” and “I don’t care where the fuck you from.”
Henkerson walked up to Bell and put his arm around him, telling him this guy wasn’t worth it and “let’s leave him alone.” (I have in my notes that Henkerson nearly started to cry at this point, saying, “Sean was in a great mood the whole month; I was trying to bring to him the reality of the situation”). Henkerson also told Guzman they should leave. Henkerson said to Guzman and Bell that Coicou was “holding himself out like he got a gun on him.”
Guzman was mad but decided to let it be and all men began walking toward Liverpool Street. When they got to the corner, Henkerson looked back at Coicou, noticing he was pulling out; he looked at Coicou to “make sure he wasn’t going to do anything.” Coicou drove up to the corner, driving slowly, then turned and made a right onto Liverpool Street, passing them. He then turned right on the next street and was gone.
The men were deciding where they’d go for food, to continue the party. Henkerson had planned to keep Bell with him for the night, until his wedding, so that he and Nicole would next see each other at the ceremony. As Bell and Guzman got into Bell’s Altima, Henkerson spoke with Bell at the window, determining where they’d go next.
Henkerson then saw the Camry driving down the street, carrying a black driver, a white passenger, and a black guy in the back. Before it passed, Henkerson stepped aside, to his right, so that the Camry passed between him and Bell’s car. The men inside all looked at Henkerson, driving slowly and “observing” him, “looking hard” at him. (Had they been looking in the other direction, at Bell’s car, they might have seen Isnora motioning them to the Altima — Isnora had just told them the men in question were getting into a car — but apparently they found Henkerson more suspicious. Why, I don’t know: Henkerson, very slim, almost wiry-limbed, didn’t look the least bit threatening. But not seeing the Altima or Isnora, the Camry continued on).
Anyway, Henkerson looked back at Bell after the Camry passed. He then saw Isnora, the black guy in the skullcap he’d just seen in front of the club. Isnora was walking up (“like he was creeping from somewhere”) behind the Altima. He had a gun drawn.
Henkerson “put two and two together,” realizing the men in the Camry were cops (why else would a white guy be traveling with two blacks in this neighborhood at 4 in the morning?). And cops plus a guy with a gun was a recipe for disaster. “Things could get really ugly,” he thought. He said, “Oh shit, he got a gun.” (On direct he testified he’d said this to himself, but on cross admitted he’d told the Grand Jury he’d said it to Bell and Guzman as well). He did not think Isnora was an officer.
Henkerson decided he and Sean had better “get off the block.” As Bell pulled out, he figured Bell would be okay since he was in his car. Henkerson started running down toward the end of the block. Behind him, he heard an engine revving up, tires screeching, and then gunshots (“a nice amount” of them). When he got to the end of the block, he heard a pause and began to come back, but then the shots started up again.
He turned the corner, and ran in the opposite direction of his car, down a few blocks, winding back up to Liverpool. He’d found Nelson and Kollore on the way. The three men arrived at the top of Liverpool to see Benefield lying on the ground belly down, wearing handcuffs, screaming that he couldn’t feel his legs. The men tried to go back down to where Sean’s Altima was, but were prevented from doing so by officers, who eventually told them which hospital which shooting victim was being taken to.
Henkerson called a cab since “he was in no condition (emotionally) to drive.” The men caught up with Bone, and cabbed first to Jamaica Hospital, where Henkerson (who was crying in the courtroom when he testified to this) saw Bell being operated on, then to Mary Immaculate to visit Benefield and Guzman, then back to Jamaica, where he was told Bell had died. Henkerson then took a cab back back to the club and retrieved his car.
On cross it was brought out that Henkerson had possessed a gun in the past, in the 1996 unlawful imprisonment case. Henkerson said he’s since “moved on with his life.”
It was also elicited on cross that he had been shot in April 2007 on the street of Far Rockaway as he left a restaurant. When asked several questions about that, he noted that he didn’t know what that had to do with this case. One defense attorney asked him why he hadn’t talked to police about that case, and whether it was because he’d had to get an attorney for that case because he was involved in criminal wrongdoing. Defense counsel asked him whether he was testifying in this case to curry favor with the prosecutors so they wouldn’t prosecute him on that case. The judge sustained repeated objections by prosecutors. Defense counsel asked Henkerson if his Mercedes was ever searched on the night of this shooting; Henkerson said no. Defense counsel asked him if the reason he didn’t drive his car to the hospital was not because he was too emotionally disturbed to do so, but because he didn’t want it to be searched. He said no.
At this point, a woman who I assumed was his wife left the courtroom. Words like “bullshit” emanated from the prosecution spectator section.
Later, another defense attorney continued with the line of questioning about Henkerson’s being shot in April 2007, asking him if he had a gun at the time of that shooting. At this point a woman on the prosecution spectator side said something which I couldn’t hear but which was audible to the judge. Cooperman stopped proceedings and called out, “whoever asked that question, leave the courtroom.” The woman got up and left, cursing as she went.
Henkerson seemed genuinely confused whenever asked any questions about the April 2007 shooting or about his own car and why he didn’t drive it.
This is the first time I really got angry with the defense. I think the attorneys are doing a good job of bringing out inconsistencies between witnesses’ trial testimony and their earlier Grand Jury testimony or their prior statements to district attorneys during interviews, getting witnesses to admit things were a lot more nuanced than they’d represented on direct (or, in Coicou’s case, completely different). But, the rap song stuff, the insinuations that Henkerson had some involvement in his own shooting — a case which hasn’t had any kind of disposition, and no discernable relation to this case whatsoever, and the stripper at the bridal shower crap — they have nothing to do with the issues here, they’re meant only to badger and make the witness look like a “bad guy” in general, and those kind of tactics don’t bode well for anyone with any sympathy whatsoever for the Bell family — and you’d have to be heartless not to be one of those people. They really beat up on this witness, a member of the Bell family, and there was no reason to do so. He presented as honest, serious, vulnerable and upset, and not interested in a fight (unlike Coicou, whom they had every reason to go after). Plus, Henkerson’s testimony was not very damaging to the defense.
Okay, briefly Detective Oliver’s Grand Jury testimony:
Oliver, 35, started with the NYPD in 1994, first in patrol as a uniformed officer, then in the narcotics bureau. He’d worked only in Manhattan all the way up to August 2006, when he was assigned to the Social Club Enforcement Unit, first in Chelsea (after Imette St. Gillen was killed), before being transferred to Queens South in October 2006, a month before the shooting. He’d been trained to be an investigator, not an undercover officer, and only in drug buys. In Manhattan, the club initiative’s aim was to close down clubs under the Nuisance Abatement Laws, by conducting drug buy and busts. All activity in Manhattan was centered around drug busts; nothing else.
He had never been to Kalua Cabaret before 11/24/06, the night of the shooting. The undercovers there were primarily to conduct prostitution busts. At the team meeting earlier in the evening, Oliver was assigned to drive the “prisoner van,” with Officer Carey in the passenger seat. Since he’d never been in the area before, Carey told him where to park and directed him around.
When they first arrived in the vicinity, around 12:15, they ate fast food, before proceeding onto the club area, parking a few block away from it. Around 1:15, he saw Sanchez, one of the undercovers, walk by him, toward the club. This signified the operation was beginning, which was confirmed by a radio call from Lt. Napoli, in charge of the operation. He and Carey simply sat in the van until nearly 4:00 a.m., making personal phone calls on their cell phones. At one point, Detective Headley drove by with Napoli, in the Camry, and they exchanged small talk, but he didn’t remember what they said.
Around 3:45, Napoli radioed and said Detective Isnora was in the club and there was a man inside of the club with a gun. That man was wearing a White Sox cap and was heavyset, either black or Hispanic. Oliver waited for further instructions.
Around 4:00, Napoli radioed again saying the man in the White Sox cap with the gun would be exiting the club soon, and for everyone to “move in closer. Keep in tight.” Oliver pulled around the corner, nearer the club, and put on his vest and police shield, which he wore on a chain around his neck. He was nervous: a prostitution operation was one thing; now they were being told someone had a gun, a much more dangerous situation.
Around 4:15, Napoli radioed that the man wearing the White Sox hat was exiting the club and the team should “move in, we’re going to grab him.” Oliver began driving toward the club. Napoli then radioed a third time commanding, “move in, field team.” Oliver proceeded down past the club, and as he did so, looked at the people outside the club for a heavyset black or Hispanic man in a White Sox hat. He didn’t see anyone fitting that description.
At the end of the corner, Oliver made a right onto Liverpool Street. He drove slowly, looking to his left for the White Sox man. He didn’t see him, but instead saw Isnora on the side of the street standing in front of a car. Suddenly, Oliver heard tires screech, and the car ran into him, hitting him head on. He was “in shock.”
He saw three men in that car — two in front and one in back.
That car then reversed and backed into Isnora, causing Isnora to jump. He now saw Isnora had his gun drawn. The car came back at Oliver’s van, hitting him again. Isnora yelled, “He’s got a gun, he’s got a gun.”
Oliver saw the car’s passenger side window blow out. He heard shots. He put his van into park, and got out of the van yelling, “police, don’t move.” He approached the passenger-side door of the car. He saw Guzman begin to raise his right arm, lowering his left shoulder at the same time, as if he was reaching into his waistband. Oliver said he was scared, he didn’t want to die. He shot. Then he had no shots, and he didn’t know why there were no shots firing from his gun. He loaded another magazine into it. He didn’t want to die. It all happened so fast. He shot with the new magazine, and continued firing until he had no more shots left, and no more magazines.
He focused all of his initial shots on Guzman, but at one point, saw the rear window of the car blow out. He then believed the man in the back was firing at him or his colleagues. So, he finished off his rounds shooting at the man in the back, Trent Benefield. He never shot at the driver, Sean Bell.
After the shooting stopped, he told Carry to “cover” him, and he ran to the van and got the radio. He called the central unit telling them shots were fired and “two perps were shot,” and asking them for ambulances and backup units to be sent to the address, which he knew. That radio call was played in the courtroom. He sounded very frantic, but gave a better address and description of where they were than Sanchez had on his 911 call.
Oliver didn’t hear any shouting from Isnora before hearing the Altima’s tires screeched. He may have had music on in the van, but he usually turned off the radio when in pursuit. He never saw Isnora fire.
Oliver said he re-assessed the situation while he was re-loading his weapon. The threat remained, as Guzman was still trying to get his hand up. If he got his hand up, Oliver felt he would be killed. The entire thing happened within seconds. He felt he had no time to take cover from one of the vehicles on the street once he’d left his van.
He never did see Guzman’s hands. It never occurred to him that his fellow officers could have fired. Oliver had only ever fired at the shooting range, never at a person.
“I am trained to eliminate the threat,” he said. “The way to eliminate the threat is to shoot at center mass. Some people die. I have to live with this for the rest of my life. It was the last thing I ever wanted to do.”