Three New York City police officers indicted in the shooting death of an unarmed man pleaded not guilty on Monday at their arraignment.
A judge set bail for Officers Michael Oliver and Gescard Isnora at $250,000 bond, or $100,000 cash. The third officer, Marc Cooper was freed without bail.
The officers surrendered earlier Monday to face charges in the shooting death of Sean Bell on his wedding day, a case that stirred outrage across the city.
The officers were accused of firing nearly 50 shots at three young men in a car outside a nightclub, killing Bell and seriously wounding two of his friends. Two other officers involved were not indicted.
The eight-count indictment charges detectives Oliver, who fired 31 times, and Isnora, a decorated undercover officer who fired 11 shots, with first-degree and second-degree manslaughter, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said Monday.
Those charges are classified as violent felonies with mandated jail time if the men are convicted. The maximum punishment for manslaughter is 25 years, Brown said.
Cooper, a detective who fired four shots, facesda misdemeanor endangerment charge, Brown said. The indictment said he fired a bullet that passed “through a window of an occupied AirTrain station.”
Oliver also was charged with endangerment in connection with a bullet that went through the window of an occupied house. All three were suspended without pay.
Two other policemen were not charged but have been placed on desk duty along with their supervisor as the NYPD continues its internal investigation.
“We are a long way from a conviction,” said defense attorney Philip Karasyk, who represents Isnora.
Old suspicions re-emerge
The case renewed allegations that the NYPD is trigger-happy, as well as accusations of racism. Bell was black, as are the other victims; three of the officers are black, and two are white.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said at a news conference with the wounded men and Bell’s fiance that the indictment “falls short of what we want. Clearly, all five officers should be charged; all officers acted in concert.”
“This case, at its best, is a return to grief for all of those involved,” he said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg acknowledged that some people would be disappointed in the grand jury’s decision.
“We have to respect the result of our justice system,” he said. “Although a trial will decide whether crimes were committed in this case, day in and day out the NYPD does an incredible job under very difficult circumstances.”
Queens DA to fight change of venue
Brown said he would oppose any attempts to get a change of venue for the trial. “This is where public opinion is equally divided, in my opinion,” he said.
Grand jurors declined to indict on the more serious counts of second-degree murder, and attempted murder, or the lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide.
Bell was killed Nov. 25 as he left his bachelor party.
Police have said the officers were involved in an undercover investigation at the nightclub when they overheard a conversation that convinced them the men were going to their car to retrieve a gun. They have said that Bell’s car hit the unmarked police vehicle and that the officers believed someone in Bell’s car was reaching for a gun when they opened fire. No gun was found.
Bloomberg said the case had led Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly “to rightly examine several aspects of police operations, including undercover work and contagious shooting.”
One officer has lavish party
As relatives of the victims waited for the Queens district attorney to unseal the indictment Monday, some were angry about reports of a lavish weekend party involving one of the indicted men.
Oliver ran up a $4,200 bill at a restaurant with supporters feasting on $180 pasta with truffles and $575 bottles of wine, the Daily News reported Monday.
"I don't really know what he was celebrating," said Denise Ford, whose son Trent Benefield was shot and seriously wounded the night Bell was killed. A third friend, Joseph Guzman, also was wounded in the shooting.