NEW YORK — A last-minute witness emerged as the city anxiously awaited word from a grand jury weighing the case of five police officers who unleashed a 50-bullet barrage that killed an unarmed man on his wedding day, authorities said.
The Queens district attorney’s office said a man came forward Wednesday to say he witnessed the shooting and had information about it, office spokesman Kevin Ryan said.
The killing of Sean Bell, 23, and the wounding of his bachelor party guests Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield on Nov. 25 raised questions about police tactics and prompted vigils and protests by civil rights activists.
Bell was black, as are the other victims; three of the officers are black, and two are white.
Detectives’ Endowment Association President Michael Palladino said at midday Thursday that it was his understanding the man was testifying before the grand jury.
“The man told detectives that he didn’t come forward sooner because he was afraid and overwhelmed,” he said.
Palladino, who was briefed on the witness by detectives, said the new witness was a 55-year-old man who spoke little English. The man went to police on Wednesday to say he had been working that night near the strip club where the shooting occurred.
He told detectives he heard the crash of vehicles and he ran out to see what was happening, Palladino said. The man said he saw a black man fire one or two shots at a police officer and then flee into a nearby building. The man told detectives that he also heard police officers identifying themselves as police, Palladino said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has acted as a spokesman for Bell’s family, said: “There are always in these kinds of cases very questionable last-minute occurrences and tactics.”
City on alert
The timing of the grand jury’s decision was uncertain because the proceedings are private. But city officials were on alert, and extra police officers were on standby in anticipation of the news.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose community outreach program went into overdrive this week as months of grand jury presentations wound down, acknowledged “there will be plenty of people who will disagree no matter what” the decision is.
He said officers would ensure “everybody is as safe on the streets before the grand jury rules as afterward.”
Union representatives and lawyers for the officers have said their clients, who were conducting an undercover investigation at a strip club, believed Bell and his friends were going to retrieve a gun from a car after overhearing them argue with another patron. No gun was found.
Guzman, Benefield and Nicole Paultre-Bell, who was to marry Bell and legally took his name after his death, joined Sharpton on Wednesday in Harlem, appearing on his radio show while awaiting the grand jury’s decision.
“I need justice,” said Guzman, who was shot 16 times.
“I’m praying,” said Paultre-Bell.
Sharpton: Protests likely
Sharpton said Tuesday that “certain levels of protests and visible actions” would likely arise if there were no indictments, but he said he expected those actions to be peaceful.
“Rather than worry if there’s going to be violence, I would think they’d be worried about the violence that already occurred,” he said in an interview. “Fifty shots is about as violent as you can get.”
The officers testified in ascending order, based on the number of bullets they fired.
Detective Paul Headley, who fired one round, and Officer Michael Carey, who fired three, testified first. Officer Marc Cooper fired four shots, and he was followed to the stand by Officer Gescard Isnora, who fired 11 shots. Michael Oliver, who reloaded and fired 31 shots, went last on Friday.
The grand jurors had been instructed to consider several charges: second-degree murder, manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide stemming from Bell’s death; and attempted murder, assault or reckless endangerment in the wounding of Benefield and Guzman.
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