NEW YORK — They waited for hours, singing spirituals, praying and chanting for justice. In a flash, the crowd gathered outside a Queens courthouse Friday erupted in anger and grief.
Men cursed and shouted. Women wailed and covered their faces. "Oh, no! No!" they yelled as word spread that three police officers had been cleared of all charges in the 50-bullet shooting that took Sean Bell's life on his wedding day in 2006.
Trent Benefield, a friend of Bell's who was wounded in the hail of gunfire, staggered down the courthouse steps with a look of angry disbelief on his face, a friend's arms tightly wrapped around his shoulders.
"Not guilty. Not guilty. It's real," Benefield said, while dozens of people wearing Bell's face on hats, T-shirts and buttons burst into sobs.
Angry supporters of the Bell family shouted at police officers and journalists outside the courthouse, but within an hour the crowd of about 200 people had settled down and dispersed. Despite some pushing and shoving in the crowd, no arrests were made.
The protests were muted compared with past verdicts where officers were cleared in police shootings of black men, perhaps a result of improved race relations and the complicated nature of the Bell case. Bell was black, but so were two of the three officers charged in the shooting, including the one who fired the first shot.
Civil rights leaders demanded a federal investigation, but supporters of the officers said justice had been served.
"How do I spell relief? N-O-T G-U-I-L-T-Y," said Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives Endowment Association, a police union.Slideshow: Emotional reaction
Shooting outside strip club
Bell, 23, was killed outside a seedy strip club in Queens in 2006 as he was leaving his bachelor party with two friends. The officers — undercover detectives who were investigating reports of prostitution at the club — said they thought one of the men had a gun.
The slaying heightened tensions in the city and stoked long-standing allegations of racism and excessive use of force on the part of New York City's police. Police had assigned extra officers to the courthouse Friday and had helicopters in the air to help deal with any unrest.
Justice Arthur Cooperman's verdict in the non-jury trial elicited gasps as well as tears of joy and sorrow. Detective Michael Oliver, who fired 31 of the shots, wept at the defense table, while the mother of victim Sean Bell cried in the packed courtroom. Shouts of "Murderers! Murderers!" and "KKK!" rang out in front of the building.
Cooperman said the inconsistent testimony, courtroom demeanor and rap sheets of the prosecution witnesses — mainly Bell's friends — "had the effect of eviscerating" their credibility.
"At times, the testimony just didn't make sense," the judge said.
Oliver and Gescard Isnora were acquitted of charges that included manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment. The third officer, Marc Cooper, faced lesser charges.
Civil rights case still possible
The verdict does not entirely resolve issues surrounding the case.
After the verdict, the U.S. attorney's office said it will look into the case and "take appropriate action if the evidence indicates a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil rights statutes."
In addition, relatives of the victims have sued the city, and those cases could either go to trial or be settled out of court with the potential for multimillion-dollar payouts.
Also, the officers, who had been on paid leave, still face possible departmental charges that could result in their firing. While the judge found that the officers' behavior was not criminal, he added, "Questions of carelessness and incompetence must be left to other forums."
The officers appeared somber later at a news conference. Each called the verdict fair. One apologized.
"I'd like to say sorry to the Bell family for the tragedy," Cooper said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who represents Bell's family, demanded a federal investigation.
"This verdict is one round down, but the fight is far from over," the civil rights leader said on his radio show. He said he is organizing "economic withdrawal" and "civil disobedience" that could involve going to jail and marching on Wall Street, at the judge's house and at police headquarters.
"We are going to close the city down in a nonviolent, effective way," Sharpton said. "We're going to hit the pocketbooks. We're going to let you know that we are not going to be in any way diverted from exercising our civil rights."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: "We don't expect any violence, nor is there any place for it."
Officers had judge try case
The officers had complained that pretrial publicity had unfairly painted them as cold-blooded killers. They opted to have the judge instead of a jury decide the case, a strategy that appeared to pay off.
District Attorney Richard Brown said that despite losing the case, prosecutors had "revealed significant deficiencies" in police tactics that need "prompt and serious attention."
The case brought back painful memories of other New York police shootings, such as the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant who was gunned down in a barrage of 41 bullets by police officers who mistook his wallet for a gun. The acquittal of the officers in that case led to days of protests, with hundreds arrested.
"An ugly pattern is emerging in New York," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in Chicago after Friday's verdict. "This was a massacre. This was not a shootout. And the U.S. attorney general must give America the assurance that we all have equal protection under the law,"
The nearly two-month trial was marked by deeply divergent accounts of the night.
The defense painted the victims as drunken thugs who the officers believed were armed and dangerous. Prosecutors sought to convince the judge that the victims had been minding their own business, and that the officers were inept, trigger-happy cowboys.
Bell's companions — Benefield and Joseph Guzman — were both wounded; Guzman still has four bullets lodged in his body. Both testified. Guzman, a burly ex-convict, grew combative during cross-examination, and said of Isnora: "This dude is shooting like he's crazy, like he's out of his mind."
None of the officers took the stand. Instead, the judge heard transcripts of the officers telling a grand jury that they believed they had good reason to use deadly force.
The officers said that as the club closed around 4 a.m., they heard Guzman say, "Yo, go get my gun" — something Bell's friends denied.
Isnora claimed that after he warned the men to halt, Bell pulled away in his car, bumped him and rammed an unmarked police van that converged on the scene. The detective also said Guzman made a sudden move as if he were reaching for a gun.
Benefield and Guzman testified that there were no orders from the police.
With tires screeching, glass breaking and bullets flying, the officers said they believed they were the ones under fire. Oliver responded by emptying his semiautomatic pistol, reloading, and emptying it again. Isnora fired 11 rounds, and Cooper four. Two other officers who fired weren't charged.
When the smoke had cleared, there was no weapon inside Bell's blood-splattered car.
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