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Witnesses’ credibility attacked in NYPD case

The surviving victims of a police shooting that left a groom-to-be dead in New York City were portrayed as lying thugs and the three officers as trigger-happy cowboys in closing arguments.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The surviving victims of a police shooting that left a groom-to-be dead in New York City were portrayed as lying thugs and the three officers as trigger-happy cowboys in closing arguments.

In a three-hour dissection of the shooting, prosecutor Charles Testagrossa noted Monday that undercover detective Michael Oliver fired 31 of the 50 total shots — even pausing to reload — at a car carrying the three men.

Groom Sean Bell, 23, was killed Nov. 25, 2006 — which would have been his wedding day — outside a bar where he had a bachelor party. Two friends with him in a car — Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield — were wounded.

Oliver "was taking his time," Testagrossa said before he broke the silence in a packed courtroom by mimicking gunshots — "Bam! Bam! Bam!"

He continued: "Thirty-one shots. Thirty-one separate pulls of the trigger. ... Thirty-one separate decisions to use deadly force. Thirty-one opportunities to pause and reassess whether continuing firing was necessary.

"Thirty-one opportunities to save an innocent life," he said.

Bell "had everything in the world to live for," Testagrossa added.

Wittness credibility attacked
Earlier, Oliver's attorney, James Culleton, accused prosecutors of building their case on the unreliable testimony of Bell's friends, including two survivors with criminal records and $50 million lawsuits against the city.

Culleton called it "a parade of convicted felons, crack dealers and men who were not strangers to weapons."

Oliver and Gescard Isnora, who fired 11 shots, have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter in Bell's death. A third undercover investigator who fired five times, Marc Cooper, pleaded not guilty to reckless endangerment. Two other officers who fired were not charged.

Justice Arthur Cooperman is hearing the case instead of a jury and is expected to deliver a verdict on April 25.

An act of self-defense?
The defense has argued the shooting was justified because the detectives, who were investigating reports of prostitution at Kalua Cabaret, believed Bell and his friends were possibly armed. They also believed that as the bullets began flying, they were the ones under fire — and responded bravely, the defense says.

But the prosecution argued on Monday that the officers were guilty of using excessive force first and fabricating a reason later.

At trial, an undercover working with Isnora testified that they became alarmed after witnessing a heated argument outside the club between Bell's friends and another patron who appeared to have a gun. He claimed they overheard Guzman, say, "Yo, go get my gun."

Defense attorney Paul Martin, who represents Cooper, portrayed Guzman, a burly ex-convict, as "the catalyst of the event. He's the reason we're here today."

In grand jury testimony, Isnora said that he decided to follow Bell, Guzman and Benefield to their car because he believed they were going to commit a drive-by shooting.

Guzman denied saying anything about a gun; other witnesses also testified that the dispute ended peacefully. He and Benefield also testified that they never heard the officers yell warnings before opening fire, and tried to drive away because they feared for their lives.

Many conflicting claims
Isnora gave a different account: When he confronted the men, he only resorted to deadly force after Bell bumped him with the car and smashed into an unmarked police van, and after he spotted Guzman make a sudden move as though he were going for a gun.

"He used enormous restraint," said defense attorney, Anthony Ricco, representing Isnora.

The defense cited testimony by a police shooter who wasn't charged that he heard Isnora yell "Stop, police!" and other commands before the gunfire erupted.

"Gunfire all about, windows blown out — what was he to believe?" Martin said of Cooper. "He responded appropriately."

Testagrossa countered by calling Benefield "the personification of the innocent victim" — someone who got into Bell's car for a ride home and ended up wounded for no reason. Once he came to court to testify, the defense treated him "like he is a criminal although he did nothing," the prosecutor said.