Yesterday was the biggest day in the trial so far: Joseph Guzman testified. Guzman is by far the most important prosecution eyewitness: unlike Trent Benefield, who was intoxicated and somewhat high, and sitting in the back seat during the shooting, and the other eyewitnesses who only saw part of the events that night, Guzman is the clue to just about everything at issue: how out of hand that fight with Coicou got beforehand, whether he ended up telling Sean Bell or anyone else to “go get my gat,” and whether the police officers ever identified themselves as such and commanded everyone not to move before firing.
Guzman’s responses to all above questions were a resounding “No.”
Overall, Guzman seemed to me to be telling it like it is, honest, for the most part, though his testimony conflicted with others’ in some significant points, perhaps owing to mental fogginess due to substantial blood loss and oxygen deprivation after the shooting, perhaps honestly forgetting certain details, or perhaps leaving them out purposefully.
Guzman is a very large man, who walks slowly with a pronounced limp and uses a cane. In comparison to Benefield, I can see someone thinking he is somewhat “tough-looking” though judging books by their covers, as this case makes more than clear, can be fatal, sometimes criminal. He was very composed, dressed professionally in a suit, but became angry and somewhat belligerent during cross, especially when questioned by Anthony Ricco (Isnora’s attorney). At points, cross became a bit of a Ricco / Guzman showdown. Ricco twice asked the judge to seriously consider evacuating the courtroom of spectators because of unrest over his questions. If he’d have got everyone kicked out of the room, I’d have been so mad; I am always quiet as a mouse!
Anyway, Mr. Guzman, 32 and engaged with two children, is not currently employed, though he’s worked previously in masonry. He has two prior convictions: one in 1995 for reckless endangerment, for which he served three years; and one from 2002 for selling crack, for which he received 2-4 years, being released about a year before this shooting. (On the 1995 reckless endangerment case, the complainant had accused Guzman of acting in concert to rob him with his friend, who had a gun, though Guzman did not wield a weapon in that case. Long story short, Guzman eventually pled guilty only to reckless endangerment).
Guzman was close friends with practically everyone in Bell’s group of friends, having met Bell through Johnell Henkerson, whom Guzman had known all his life. He knew Sean “real well,” seeing him “everyday.” He was in the infamous rap band, but was not a rapper or a writer, he said with a self-conscious laugh. Years ago they put out a CD in order “to make money, like anybody else.”
He’d been to Kalua 3 or 4 times before the fatal night. He arrived at the club late that night, around 2-2:30 on the morning of November 25th. Henkerson drove him, but not in Henkerson’s Mercedes; in his cousin Elliot’s car. Henkerson had to turn around and leave, however, after dropping off Guzman, because he had to drive his underage cousin home. (Henkerson later returned; his testimony is here. Henkerson said he drove the Mercedes to the club, which is significant since the defense suggestion seems to be that Henkerson may have had a gun in the Mercedes).
After being thoroughly searched, Guzman went to the back of the club and joined Sean Bell’s bachelor party. Guzman drank only one Vodka and cranberry juice; he was diabetic and couldn’t drink much.
Around 4:00 a.m., the lights dimmed, indicating the club was closing. He and Sean were planning to go to the Flagship Diner for food, then home. (Henkerson said Sean was staying with him so he wouldn’t see Nicole until the wedding; Guzman knew Sean wasn’t seeing Nicole until the wedding but either didn’t know or forgot that Sean was going to stay with Henkerson. Henkerson said he was standing at Bell’s car door talking with Bell moments before the shooting, but neither Guzman nor Benefield remember that, and defense attorneys have asked the two if they are trying to distance themselves from Henkerson and if so why).
When Guzman left the club he saw Coicou standing in front of his SUV, in front of Kalua. Coicou had his right hand in his jacket pocket, and was talking to members of the Bell group; he stood sideways in front of them, holding his hand in a manner that indicated he had a gun. Guzman in fact thought Coicou had a gun. Coicou was saying, “I don’t fight no more, I don’t fight anymore.”
Guzman said, “What’s going on?”
James Kollore said, “I’ll take your gun.” Guzman didn’t hear Sean say that as well, only Kollore. (Jean Nelson said Sean said it as well as Kollore.)
Guzman said, “Listen, we’re not going to get into this tonight.”
Coicou said, “I’m from Far Rockaway.”
Guzman said, “I’m from Far Rockaway too, but that means nothing. We had a good time and we’re outta here.”
Guzman said he never said “go get my gun” or anything of that nature, never substituting a slang term for “gun.”
Guzman and the group walked to the corner of 94th Avenue and Liverpool, when Coicou drove down the street and passed them. At the corner, Coicou indicated for Guzman to go ahead first, but Guzman motioned to him to go ahead. Coicou passed them, drove down the street and turned at the next corner. Guzman, Bell, and Benefield got into Bell’s car (Bell in driver’s seat, Guzman in front passenger, and Benefield in rear driver’s side). The windows were all closed since it was cold outside.
As they were pulling out of their parking space and driving into the street, suddenly a minivan collided head-first with them. At that point, Guzman saw Isnora (whom he identified in court, pointing at the defense table and saying “that kid over there”; Isnora was the only officer he could identify, which I bolded because newsreports have erroneously stated otherwise). Isnora was standing in front of him holding a silver gun, which he pointed at the front windshield. He saw him shouting but didn’t hear him say anything. He didn’t see a police badge and had no idea who he was.
The next thing he knew, Isnora had shot him, striking him on the upper right shoulder right above the breastbone. (In court, he pulled down the collar of his shirt in order to show the judge his bullet hole.) Guzman’s arms were just hanging around his waist; there was nothing in his waistband. At that point, everything to Guzman slowed down, went into slow motion; the first shot “was like wind.” He looked into Isnora’s eyes.
Guzman told Sean, “let’s go, let’s go, let’s do it. This is not a robbery; he’s trying to kill us.” Guzman felt himself get struck again, over his right shoulder. He saw Isnora fire that shot too. Guzman then saw a white man standing at the minivan’s passenger-side door (this had to have been Officer Carey). That man had a gun pointed at him as well. Guzman began trying to turn himself sideways, to lay down in Sean’s area so he wouldn’t be shot again.
Sean put the car in reverse, backed up, and hit something, then shifted into drive and tried to pull back out and get around the minivan. But he hit the minivan.
The gunfire was continuous throughout this time. “This dude was shooting crazy, like it’s a take-out,” said Guzman pointing at Isnora. Guzman continued trying to reach across Sean’s seat in order to avoid the gunfire coming into his passenger-side area; he tried to reach across and get to the door. While doing so, he grabbed a handful of shattered glass from the shattered driver’s side window, slicing his palm, for which he eventually received stitches. While trying to get out the driver’s side, Guzman was shot on the top of his back, on his torso, in his buttocks several times, four times in his right leg, and the last bullet hit his left ankle. He sustained 19 bullet wounds altogether.
Guzman saw Trent Benefield open the back door and flee. After he did so, all gunfire and attention shifted to Benefield. The shooters shot at him, and eventually Guzman saw Benefield fall (though, according to a photo taken by CSU detectives of the scene, there was no way he could have seen Benefield fall from where the car was located. I took this not as a lie, but as Guzman’s mind, woozy from blood and oxygen loss, misremembering, after knowing what eventually happened to Benefield).
When the fire ended, Guzman’s arms were outstretched, his neck and arms now outside the driver’s side window, Sean underneath him. “There wasn’t much left,” when the gunfire ended. Guzman said to Bell, “S, I love you, son,” and claimed Bell said the same to him, though the medical examiner said that it wasn’t possible for Bell to speak after being shot in the larynx; another instance of Guzman’s mind playing wishful tricks on him while foggy). Guzman thought “it was all over” for both of them. (Sean Bell’s parents left the courtroom briefly at this point; Mrs. Bell crying.)
Soon, an undercover officer approached him, said, “let me see your fuckin’ hands,” and handcuffed him. Around the same time, the paramedics arrived. They arrived fast (Guzman’s emphasis). When the EMT opened the car door, Guzman’s head hit the ground, and he sustained an abrasion to his chin. It was then he realized the men who shot him were police officers.
He was taken to Mary Immaculate Hospital, where he stayed until December 12th, when he was transferred to Jamaica Hospital where he stayed for another five weeks.
Guzman sustained 19 bullet holes, 7 bullets lodging inside of him (two of them had been removed, one came out on its own, and four remained inside), permanent nerve damage to his foot, resulting in “drop foot” (which accounts for the limp), a shattered tibia resulting in a permament metal rod in his leg, and had holes in his intestines, lung, and ribs. He continues physical therapy for the nerve damage to his leg, visiting his therapist three times per week for 2/12 to 3 hours at a time.
Glaring at the detectives in the Detective’s Endowment Association group, who occupy the first two rows of the defense spectator seats, Guzman said he had joined in the $50 million lawsuit with Benefield against the NYPD. His health insurance didn’t come anywhere near covering his overall treatment, and remaining medical bills totalled over $20,000.
On April 19, 2007, he went to the doctor’s office to have another bullet removed. On that day, Henkerson had been shot in the neck. I couldn’t understand all of the testimony, but somehow undercover officers were at the doctor’s office when Guzman arrived with Henkerson, and while he was there, they confiscated Guzman’s keys, car, and wheelchair, not returning those items to him for over 1 1/2 weeks.
On cross, Guzman said he never carried a gun with him for protection, including when he was selling crack. “I don’t need protection,” he snickered.
He said he was not talking on his cell phone at any point during the shooting, though a picture of the car shows his cell phone opened on the passenger-side seat. He wears his cell phone clipped to his waist, he said on re-direct.
Benefield saw Isnora standing in front of the car before they pulled out, and at that point Guzman said “drive man, go, go, go.” Guzman said he never saw Isnora until they’d already collided with the van, and it was at that point that he said, “let’s do it, let’s go.” Guzman said they never hit Isnora; Isnora never jumped over the hood, but that’s what Jean Nelson saw.And Coicou had told prosecutors Guzman said to Bell “go get my gat”; Guzman said he never said that. When asked by Ricco whether he was pretending to have a gun for bravado purposes, or to call Coicou’s bluff, Guzman laughed and asked him where he was from. I don’t think Ricco ever answered, unless he did so under his breath, but Guzman kept asking, and the judge didn’t stop him and Ricco didn’t ask him to. They just kept going back and forth like that for a while:
“did you pretend to have a gun?”
“man, where you from?”
“did you pretend to have a gun?”
“where you from, man?”
“did you pretend to have a gun?”
“seriously, where you from?”
It was kind of funny that Justice Cooperman let this continue; I didn’t know when it was going to end. Later, Guzman said where he comes from, that’s really stupid to act like you have a gun if you don’t. Which led Ricco down the “and what did Henkerson (who was talking to Sean by the window before he started his car) have in his car?” road. “Where did you not have a gun?” he asked. To which Guzman said, “Oh come on, are you serious man, are you serious, are you serious?”
Before reading his Grand Jury testimony (in which Guzman said he first saw Isnora on the sidewalk, not on the street in front of the windshield), Ricco had his client rise. “And you say you saw this man…” Ricco began. “I’m not respecting anyone on that side as a ‘man,'” Guzman declared, and proceded to refuse, no matter how many times Ricco referred to Isnora as a man, to call him such, insisting on calling him “kid.” When Ricco asked him if he’d just made up that he first saw Isnora in front of the windshield, Guzman said, “you can’t make this up, man, you can’t make this up man, you can’t make this up.” For a good many seconds, every time Ricco tried to start a new question, Guzman’d say, “you can’t make this up, man.”
Finally, Ricco got a question in, asking, “I bet you was pretty tough out there on the street in front of Club Kalua…”
Guzman answered, “You don’t know me. Yeah, that’s what you would think.”
“No one gets anything by with you, do they?” Ricco said, referring to Coicou’s antagonizing him.
“You really don’t know me,” Guzman said snickering and shaking his head.
Ricco asked, “did you recognize Isnora at the club as an undercover officer? Was Coicou trying to hint that Isnora was an undercover officer?” (Coicou had testified that this is what he was trying to do).
Guzman smiled and rolling his eyes, asked again, “Are you serious, man?” Guzman then said he didn’t even know if he truly believed Isnora was in that club that night.
Guzman had told a uniformed officer at the scene, while he was being removed from the car onto the stretcher, “you all shooting us for nothing! We have nothing in this car, no guns, nothing. You all shooting us for nothing!” Ricco asked Guzman how he knew officers had shot him; who was the “you all?” Guzman now got really mad; he said loudly, “that officer (the ‘let me see your fuckin’ hands’ one) was there too quick.”
Guzman is clearly street smart. Bleeding and lightheaded from lack of oxygen though he may have been, he probably could piece together pretty quickly what had just happened. But he also seems like the kind of guy who would have spotted a police badge a mile away. Unless it just all happened so quickly…
Today, Dr. Albert Cooper, the emergency physician who treated Guzman, testified about Guzman’s many wounds, some of which were life-threatening. He sustained 19 bullet wounds in all, including one on his upper jawline, a couple on the right side of his chest, a couple in his abdominal area, several in his right thigh, several in his lower leg, several in his buttocks, and two on his back. There was also a deep laceration across his palm. He had trauma to his lung and urinary tract, and his small and large intestines and colon were pierced, causing dangerous toxic leakage of fluids into his surrounding tissues. His tibia was shattered and he had seven bullets in his body.
Dr. Cooper immediately operated on Guzman, repairing his intestines and lung, the most threatening of the injuries, then transferred him to intensive care for further management. Guzman sustained permanent neurological damage in the form of “drop foot,” making it difficult for him to control his lower leg, for which he continued to receive physical therapy. Dr. Cooper had since removed two bullets from Guzman’s body, and several remained inside him. He would also have the metal rod in his tibia permamently.
Toxicology reports indicated that Guzman’s blood alcohol level was only .041, below the legal limit of intoxication of .08, and Benefield’s was .11, above it.
The day ended with the prosecution resting. Tomorrow begins the defense.