Today’s testimony consisted solely of that of Trent Benefield, one of the three men shot by police detectives in Sean Bell’s car on the morning of 11/25/06.
Honestly, Mr. Benefield was not what I was expecting, after seeing Anthony South‘s on-the-scene footage of him handcuffed from behind and lying on the ground on his stomach screaming of pain in his legs and at paramedics that they were hurting him as they placed him onto a stretcher. Of course he was in serious pain at that point (when asked today by prosecutor Testagrossa on a scale of 1-10 how much pain he was in, he said “15”; the audience laughed), so his screams were understandable.
But today he was extremely well-mannered, very soft-spoken, very nervous-seeming, and very unimposing and unthreatening. No wonder several earlier eyewitnesses never even saw him get into Sean Bell’s car that night; he’s a small, quiet guy who could easily have gone unnoticed. Overall, Benefield seemed honest, at times admitting things against his interest (like having a marijuana addiction and being drunk when leaving the club that night), but because he was intoxicated and somewhat high, his ability to observe and remember events that evening were hindered. Also, he seemed sensitive, and because of the obvious stressfulness of the events, seems not to have seen it all. In any event, there were some real inconsistencies in his testimony.
A small, thin man, Mr. Benefield, 24 years old, had no prior covinctions, and, while currently unemployed, had formerly worked in a tire shop repairing tires. He had known Sean Bell for 6 or 7 years, and had met him through his lifelong friends, Johnell Hankerson (I can’t always hear very well in the courtroom, and may have spelled his name wrong earlier), and Joe Guzman (the other man in the car, whom I expect to testify tomorrow).
Benefield went to Kalua with Sean and James Kollore, in Sean’s Altima. After Sean parked and the three were getting ready to go inside, a police officer pulled up and asked Sean for his driver’s license and registration, which Sean gave him. After inspecting both, the officer returned them to Sean and told him to have a nice day.
After being frisked by the bouncer, the three ordered a round of Long Island Ice Teas, then went to the back of the club, where they were joined by others. Throughout the night, Benefield had three such drinks (though he’d told officers at the hospital, when medicated, that he had Hennesseys instead of Long Island Ice Teas), as well as two blunts of marijuana, which he smoked outside with Bone. Though admitting he had a marijuana addiction, Benefield only used, never sold, the drug. Benefield said he was “intoxicated” and “feeling nice” but not “high” from the marijuana when he and the Bell group left the club, around 3:40-3:45 a.m.
Benefield and his friend Larenzo Kinred were the last of the group to leave the club, as Benefield wanted to finish his drink. By the time he left, everyone was already outside. When he walked out, he saw Coicou standing in front of his SUV holding his right hand in his pocket as if pointing something, making Benefield think he had a gun. Benefield had told District Attorneys when meeting with them shortly after the shooting that Coicou said, “I got it; it’s in my pocket. I’ll shoot you.” He heard Coicou say to Guzman that he was from “Far Rock,” and Guzman respond that he was from Far Rockaway too. He didn’t hear anyone use the word “gun” or any slang for the word, and never saw Hankerson put his arm around Sean and tell him to calm down, as Hankerson testified he did. He never saw Sean return to the club to retrieve his hat.
They all began to walk toward Liverpool Street. As they rounded the corner, Coicou drove up, went past them, and made a right down Liverpool. The men continued on, Guzman, Sean Bell, and Benefield all getting into Sean’s car. Sean got into the driver’s seat, Guzman the passenger front, and Benefield the driver’s-side back seat, behind Sean. All car windows were closed; Benefield never saw Sean speaking with Hankerson through the window. Nor did he remember talking to Marseillas Payne, or her calling out to him from her car, as she’d said she did.
As soon as Bell started his car, Benefield suddenly saw a man (Det. Isnora) approach the car, holding a gun. He came right up to Sean, pointing his gun at Sean, and, since he was sitting directly behind him, Benefield as well. Benefield immediately covered his face with his hands, including his eyes. He saw nothing more, though he heard Guzman call out, “Go, go, drive, go.” He felt Sean step on the gas and felt the car “bump” something. It’s unclear whether the “bump” — Benefield’s word — was the car hitting Isnora or hitting the police minivan. The next thing Benefield remembered was hearing shots fired in rapid succession, with no pause. It was about two seconds between the collision, or bump, and the shots beginning. Benefield never heard Isnora say anything, and never saw anything on him (ie: a badge) to indicate who he was (ie: an officer)
Feeling himself get shot in both calves, Benefield reached over, opened the back driver’s side car door, and began running south, down Liverpool Street. As he ran, he was shot again, in the thigh, right below the right buttock. All officers who’ve testified at trial, or whose Grand Jury testimony we’ve heard, have said they saw Benefield running down the street but didn’t fire at him because they saw he was unarmed, so this testimony is interesting. I’d surmised Friday that it looked from one of the CSU detective’s diagrams like the shot that eventually went into Mrs. Rodrigues’s house appeared to have been fired from way down the street, not at all near Bell’s car, and that, unless it just ricocheted weirdly off of something else, someone may have shot at Benefield. Unfortunately, that bullet entered and exited his thigh, and, I think — unless it had blood on it and the blood could be traced to Benefield — we can’t tell which bullet that was. So, it may be impossible ever to know for certain who fired that shot.
And, Benefield said that he fell immediately after he was shot, which would have been further down near the end of the street, not in front of the Rodrigues house. So, that bullet must have been a bullet other than the one that went into her house. Unless of course, he just doesn’t remember cleary. Extremely complicated crime scene.
Anyway, after he fell to the ground, Benefield looked up to see a tall, dark, heavy-set man (Det. Headley, from the Camry) approaching him with a gun. He saw nothing on him to indicate he was an officer, and, seeing the gun, was scared. Headley told him to “stay down.” Benefield responded, “I didn’t do nothing. I got shot.” Someone told him to put his hands behind his back, and handcuffed him. He repeated that he was shot and needed help. Soon, EMS workers arrived to take him to the hospital, removing his clothing. He identified by photo all clothing found at the scene, besides the gloves and hat, as his. When asked on cross if the marijuana found near those items was his as well, and he said no, there were grumbles in the courtroom and the court officers swifty told everyone to be quiet. (Jean Nelson had testified earlier that the marijuana was his). Benefield didn’t remember cursing at police officers at the scene or getting angry at the hospital over the whereabouts of his jacket (an officer earlier testified, Benefield said, “go fuck yourself,” when he asked him for information and another officer said he’d got upset upon learning his clothing was missing.)
Benefield was at the hospital for 9-10 days, recuperating from the three gunshot wounds. He sustained a permanent injury to his calf: the metal rod holding the bone together. Unable to work since, he lived on payments from a charity organization and a bank loan. At the hospital, he learned the shooters were police officers. There is currently pending a $50 million civil suit against the city, of which he is a part.
The main problem in Benefield’s testimony is that he said he’d heard only one bump followed almost immediately by shots. But he’d told interviewing officers at the hospital about an hour and a half after the shooting that Bell’s car hit something, then reversed and crashed into something else, then sped forward again and crashed a third time: “my man, trying to get away, backed up into another car, then go forward.” Not knowing how to rectify the inconsistencies, he said he must have been mistaken in the hospital; that he “made up” that Bell’s car had reversed, hit something else, then crashed again. The officers taped their conversation with Benefield at the hospital, and that tape was played in court; Benefield acknowledged the voice on it was his.
On cross examination, defense counsels James Cullerton (for Det. Oliver) and Anthony Ricco (representing Det. Isnora) focused a bit on Benefield’s marijuana habit. Cullerton asked Benefield how he paid for it, saying sarcastically, “I take it you make a large amount of money working for the tire maker.” Benefield said he paid for the marijuana with money he earned, and that he didn’t know exactly how much of the money he’d received from the charity organization went for marijuana. And, after he said he must have “made up” the sequence of events to the officer in the hospital, Ricco asked Benefiel how much “reefer” he’d had that morning. Laughs emanated from the second two rows of the defense side of the courtroom (where all the officers sit). A court officer immediately yelled, “Quiet!”, which made me happy because at least everyone’s getting yelled at for making noise, not just those on the prosecution side.
I still found Benefield to be sympathetic, despite inconsistencies between his testimony and what he’d told the officers at the hospital that morning. It was a meaningless inconsistency for one thing — it doesn’t really make a difference whether Sean backed up and went forward again, does it??? It all happened extremely fast. I felt like Benefield was kind of caught on the spot after they played the tape recording of him talking to the officers in the hospital and the inconsistency was glaringly there, and then he didn’t really know what to say, so said he “made it up”. Did Testagrossa not adequately prep him for trial? And, then, all the questions about his marijuana smoking, which he admitted to doing, after all. Again, he’s being made, unnecessarily, into the bad guy, when the poor guy was shot after all and has a metal rod in his leg for life. Yes, the marijuana likely dulled his senses on the morning of the shooting, reducing his observational capacities and calling into question his memory of the events. But is he a liar because he has an addiction, which he may sometimes pay for with borrowed money?
I know the lawyers are doing their jobs, and they’re doing a superb job of pointing out significant inconstencies between witnesses’ trial testimonies and prior Grand Jury testimony or statements made to officers or DAs. But there is definitely something to the Bell family’s claim that the tables are being turned and the prosecution witnesses (and perhaps the black community, or at least a certain segment of it) are being put on trial here with all the focus on the rap lyrics, the 10+-year-old prior convictions, the marijuana habits. Regarding all of this, by the way, there’s a good but too short article in today’s NYTimes by Michael Wilson on Anthony Ricco, the black attorney who’s arguably attacking black prosecution witnesses in order to defend black defendant Gescard Isnora.