Sean Bell Shooting Trial Day 25: "We Said We Can't See Him as a Police Officer; He's so Calm"

Today was not my day. First, on my way into the courthouse I was almost tripped by a cameraman running backward — literally running — to make sure he captured Nicole Bell and her attorneys on their entire way down the sidewalk and up the courthouse steps.

Then court got off to a very late start, due in part to the prosecution team’s (habitual) tardiness, followed by a lengthy side-bar. I could see Isnora’s attorney Anthony Ricco getting into it with Assisant D.A. Peter Reiss, but could only see lips moving. In my notes taken during this time I have: “Oliver chatting up pretty female court asst., as usual. Isnora sitting still looking down as usual. Cooper fiddling with something in hands. Front row sketch artist drawing beautiful portrait of the three def’s — should sell her work in a gallery.”

Then, during lunch the place I ate at — Samurai something or rather — a teriyaki place on Queens Boulevard, was closed down by the Health Department just as I was wondering if the cabbage tasted a bit off. I was sitting up front, near the window, along with a couple other female patrons, as a woman walked up and smacked two huge yellow signs on the door and window reading, “Closed By Health Department For Health and Hygiene Violations,” then promptly walked away. The two women near me and I all looked at each other. “Ah, ‘xcuse me,” said one woman, standing up and shouting to the servers in the back. “You just got shut down.” They didn’t seem to hear so she said it louder, this time flailing about. “Excuse me! The Health Department has just shut you down.” At this the several Asian women behind the counter along with the half dozen patrons currently ordering food all looked up at us. A woman behind the cash register simply nodded, and the whole lot of them went back to doing what they were doing. “They don’t care,” said the woman to me in disbelief. Right then the woman’s boyfriend walked in. He’d apparently been parking the car while she came in and got a table. “Okay, what do you want,” he said excitedly walking toward the food line. “What? You blind?” she yelled at him. He looked stunned. “I ain’t eatin’ here now,” she said pulling him by the coat sleeve toward the door. “Only in New York,” she said to me shaking her head as they left. I looked at the woman on my other side, then down at my veggie teriyaki bowl. We both laughed nervously. I finished my Coke, threw the rest of my food away, and went to the card store next door to get a candy bar, which became my lunch. My sugar-filled meal ended up giving me a decent-sized headache.

Anyway, the testimony:

First on was Nelson Rafael, a 21-year-old college student who was living with his family in a house around the corner from the end of Liverpool Street where Trent Benefield was stopped. He said he was watching TV with the volume low around 4:00 a.m. on the morning of 11/25 when he heard at least two male voices shouting, though he couldn’t hear what they were saying. Soon thereafter he heard continuous gunshots. He peeked out his window to see an officer arresting Benefield. The significance of his testimony is that he heard shouts from quite far away (judging by the photo shown in court, his house was all the way at the end of the block and slightly around the corner, so he heard the shouts from over a block away), and the shouts preceded the shots. He knows no one on either the prosecution or defense side.

Next was Alexander Jason, from California, called by Det. Oliver. Jason’s an expert in just about everything from forensic psychology to blood stain pattern analysis to wound ballistics identification, to shooting incident reconstruction, including glass analysis. Using the NYPD Crime Scene Unit’s surveys, photos, lab reports and diagrams, and performing his own measurements and tests, Jason arrived at several of his own conclusions. First, by firing a gun similar to that used by Det. Oliver, he found that, firing continuously, he took 4 1/2 seconds to fire the first 16 shots, and 12.3 seconds to fire all 31 rounds from both magazines. Since the trigger pull on his gun was slightly heavier than that of Oliver’s, it could have taken Oliver less time.

Next, Jason testified that when a shot is fired into a glass window, the glass can blow both inward and / or outward. So, when shots were fired through Bell’s Altima’s passenger-side window, and through the back windshield, the windows could have shattered entirely or mostly outward onto the street (thus, back toward the shooters), and not only inward into the car. (This testimony is likely meant to substantiate the detectives’ claims that they thought someone in Bell’s car was shooting out at them since the glass exploded in their direction).

Jason also examined the gunshot holes on Benefield’s pants, and compared them to those on his body. He concluded that, because the upper portion of the pants contained only two bullet holes — one going through the seat of the pants, the other through the waist-line — Benefield must have sustained the bullet wound to his thigh while he was in a seated position in the car, wearing the waist of his pants low down around his hips. The way the bullet holes were placed in his pants, he couldn’t have been standing up. These findings were consistent, Jason said, with the trajectory of a bullet hole in the Altima’s rear open door, and with blood splatters inside the back seat of the car. (So, the significance of this testimony is that, according to Jason, Benefield was not, as Benefield had said, running at the time he sustained the bullet wound to his thigh, but was likely still in the car, opening the door, and right before he emerged from it.)

Third, Jason analyzed the bullet hole through Mrs. Rodrigues‘s living room window. He found that the CSU detective’s measurements here were faulty, which you could see in a picture of the trajectory rod that CSU detective had placed through the bullet hole, which didn’t even come close to connecting with the lampshade. Jason said the way one should trace such a trajectory is by starting with the place where the bullet was found — here, the lampshade — then work backward through the window the bullet came through, to get the bullet’s proper trajectory. (This testimony made sense to me; I’d said earlier the CSU detective’s diagram appeared facially nonsensical.) Jason also performed his own gunshot analysis and found that there was no way a simple lampshade would have stopped a bullet fired from a Sig Sauer (Oliver’s type of gun), having pierced only a double-paned window. The bullet, if fired directly into the window, would have gone straight through that shade and continued on, striking other things in the house behind it. Rather, in order for that bullet to have landed where it did, it would have had to have ricocheted off of something else before going through the window.

Next, Jason testified that the bullet found inside the Altima’s engine would have had to have been fired when the Altima’s hood was ajar, after the third collision between the Altima and police minivan. There was no bullet hole in the Altima’s hood, and, if the hood was not somewhat opened, there was no way that bullet would have ended up in the engine without piercing the hood. Also, rubber transfers on the front bumper of the minivan are consistent with the Altima’s tires having rubbed up against it and rotated inward to the right of the van (showing, I assume, the Altima was trying to get around the minivan, which we already know).

Finally, Jason examined the bullet that pierced the window of the Air Train station (which was presumably fired by Cooper, though the bullet recovered was so deformed that couldn’t be said with certainty from the bullet alone). He found that if that bullet was fired from near the Camry, the gun was elevated upward at a 14-degree angle. The bullet was aimed right at the Altima, but would have passed right over it. Jason used a laser connected with a protractor to show us in court how, with such distance, one’s aim only has to be slightly elevated in order for the bullet to end up a great deal higher than intended. Alternatively, the bullet that ended up in the Air Train station also could have ricocheted off of a hard object and gone upward, Jason said.

We didn’t get to hear the cross examination of Mr. Jason, since civilian witnesses called by Det. Isnora had arrived, and Mr. Ricco requested the testimony be taken out of sequence. So, there may be more elicited from Jason later in the week, on cross.

Isnora called two character witnesses: Neftali Agosto, the pastor of his church; and Omar Santiago, a childhood friend of his who is now also a police officer. Agosto testified that Isnora has been a member of his church for over 20 years, beginning when his mother would bring him to church as a child. Isnora had later stopped coming to church, but returned to regular attendance about a year and a half ago. Agosto, who was very close friends with Isnora’s family, said he was surprised when he learned Isnora had joined the police force. He knew Isnora as a “very quiet, soft-spoken, nonconfrontational person.” He knew Isnora had a reputation in the church community (the only way to establish character evidence in NY is through knowledge of the defendant’s “reputation in the community”) for peacefulness and honesty through speaking to members of the church, and his own and Isnora’s families.

Santiago, 31, was a lifelong friend of Isnora’s. Both men grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood, worked as lifeguards together, attended John Jay College of Criminal Justice together, and eventually become police officers. Santiago said Isnora has a reputation in the community where they live for peacefulness and honesty. Interestingly, just like Agosto, Santiago said he was surprised when Isnora decided to become a police officer, because he was so “nonconfrontational, quiet, and calm.” “We said we can’t see him as a police officer, he’s so calm,” Santiago said he and their mutual friends had thought.

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