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Trial of 3 NYC police officers begins

The death of an unarmed man caught in a barrage of police bullets on his wedding day can’t be explained “as a mere accident," a prosecutor said Monday at the opening of the trial of three undercover  officers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Three undercover police detectives who fired 50 shots at an unarmed man on his wedding day, killing him, were reckless and trigger happy, prosecutors argued Monday at the opening of the officers’ trial.

Sean Bell, 23, who had been at a bachelor party on the night before his wedding, was killed in a barrage of bullets outside a Queens strip club in the early hours of Nov. 25. Two of his friends were wounded.

The shooting sparked protests and debate over excessive force and police conduct in New York City.

Prosecutor Charles Testagrossa told the judge that once the evidence is heard, “It will be clear that what happened cannot be explained away as a mere accident or mistake. It can only be characterized as criminal.”

But lawyers for the detectives argued that the shooting was justified because their clients had reason to believe Bell and his friends were armed and dangerous.

There was evidence Bell was drunk and “out of control” when he left the club, and witnesses overheard him exchange curses with another patron and heard Bell’s friend Joseph Guzman tell someone to “Go get my gat,” slang for gun, said Anthony Ricco, an attorney for Detective Gescard Isnora.

He argued that Bell, at Guzman’s urging, tried to run over Isnora with his car after the officers confronted Bell’s party and identified themselves as police. Ricco described the car as a “deadly weapon” and “human battering ram.”

“When there is a confluence of alcohol and ignorance, there’s always a tragedy,” Ricco said.

Isnora and Detective Michael Oliver have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter; Detective Marc Cooper has pleaded not guilty to reckless endangerment. Oliver fired 31 shots — including the one that killed Bell — Isnora fired 11 shots and Cooper fired four times. Two other officers also fired shots, but have not been charged.

The defendants waived their right to a jury trial, so State Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Cooperman is hearing the case by himself.

The woman Bell was to marry, Nicole Paultre-Bell, wept as she testified about being summoned to a hospital and learning Bell was dead.

Paultre-Bell, who has two young daughters from Bell and legally took her fiance’s name after his death, recounted in a soft voice how she met him in high school and how he had a tattoo on his chest bearing her nickname, “Coli.”

She was not cross-examined.

While comparisons to other police-involved shootings are inevitable, this trial wasn’t expected to arouse the kind of outrage that occurred after the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant hit by 19 of the 41 shots fired by police in the Bronx. The officers were acquitted of criminal charges in a 2000 trial.

In the current case, the officers involved are Hispanic, black and white. Bell was black, as are the other victims.

Oliver and Isnora face up to 25 years in prison if convicted; Cooper faces up to one year on the lesser endangerment count.