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Justice served in Sean Bell shooting case

I know it sounds bad — 50 shots fired, a groom is dead, two friends seriously wounded and the cops who fired the shots were acquitted of everything by a judge after a seven-week trial.

People I know, like and respect have said that justice was denied, that cops have a license to kill, and that this is legalized murder.

While I understand this point of view, I disagree. I think the verdict was fair and justice was served.  

In order for the judge to have found the three detectives charged with Sean Bell’s murder guilty, the judge would have had to find that there was no justification for the shooting. But that just does not square with the testimony and evidence introduced at trial.

Justice Arthur Cooperman indicated that he did not find the prosecution witnesses credible and found the police officers' version of the facts more credible. He also said at times, the testimony just didn’t make sense.

What likely happened
While no one really knows just what happened that night, here is what seems to be the most likely scenario:

Sean Bell and his friends had been at the Kalua Cabaret Strip Club as part of a bachelor party the night before his wedding. At that time, the Kalua Club had been under investigation for suspected prostitution and drug offenses.

According to newspaper accounts, undercover officers were at the strip club that night, which was the last night of their two-month long investigation. Around 3:30 a.m., the undercover officers thought they saw the start of an altercation involving a man with a gun. 

They radioed their backup unit to tell them there was a man inside the club with a gun and that a fight was about to break out thinking it was getting “hot” and that something was about to happen.

Police testified that they thought they heard someone tell one of his buddies to go and get a gun.

Fearing a shooting was about to break out, they followed Bell and his two friends to their car.  Bell then pulled away, and bumped and rammed an unmarked police van. A detective said one of the passengers made a sudden move, as if going for a gun. In the officer’s mind, he thought, “gun” and fired. Once the shooting began, it was hard to stop and became chaos. According to an AP report, “with tires screeching, glass breaking and bullets flying,” the officers thought they were the ones being fired upon.

One detective thought his gun jammed so he reloaded. But by this time, he had already fired 15 rounds, and then fired 16 more. One officer fired 31 bullets from his weapon, another officer fired 11 shots, and a third fired four. Two other officers on scene did not discharge their weapons.

But why fire so many times?
The question becomes, why fire so many times? What were officers thinking? Did they panic or overreact? Were they in fear for their safety? Did they violate police policy and procedure? Did they commit manslaughter?

The officers thought they were justified in using deadly force believing they were in mortal danger. In order for the officers’ use of force to be justified, they would have had to reasonably believe deadly force was about to be used against them, in other words, that someone had a gun and was about to use it. But no weapon was recovered from the scene and it appears that no one was armed. Even if it turns out the police were mistaken, if their belief at the time was reasonable that someone was armed and was about to shoot, they were justified in firing.

But why so many times? Because officers are not trained to shoot to wound, they are trained to shoot to kill.

Interestingly, of the five officers involved in the shooting, according to police sources, none have ever discharged their weapons while on duty. 

The deceased had been arrested three times, twice for drugs and once for a gun. The second victim had nine arrests including one for armed robbery. The third has a juvenile record, sealed, but according to the New York Post, it is for gun possession and robbery. Their records alone clearly do not justify the excessive use of force. But if those records were known to law enforcement, it may have reinforced the belief that the men were armed and about to fire. 

I believe that the district attorney’s office conducted a thorough, fair, honest, and dispassionate investigation and prosecution.

I also believe that law enforcement must review this incident and respond accordingly and appropriately without prejudice or favor in terms of training and procedure. 

And I believe that even though the officers cannot yet express their remorse, they are saddened by this incident and by Sean Bell’s death. No officer ever wants to take a life, even when the shooting is justified. Clearly, even if mistakes were made, the officers did not engage in deliberate and intentional misconduct. I know they grieve. 

No one 'won'
Law enforcement is a difficult and dangerous job. The stress of putting one’s life on the line every day must take its toll. While New Yorkers deserve to be served and protected by NYPD’s finest, New Yorkers also need to know that NYPD will not condone, enable or tolerate any unlawful shooting by law enforcement. Police officers must always act lawfully and appropriately, must always help not hurt, must always serve and protect, and can never shoot to kill unlawfully or inappropriately.

Fifty shots sounds like an awful lot of shots fired, but a judge heard all the evidence in this case and found reasonable doubt. The state did not prove its case and the officers were acquitted. This case does not come down to a license to legally murder if you are a cop, or a racist judgment that if the race of the victims were different, the verdict would have been different.

I think this case comes down to the simple bare fact that the state did not meet its burden of proof. This case was decided with reason, based on facts and evidence, not on color, either black or NYPD Blue.

Whatever the outcome of this trial, no one would have “won.”

A groom was shot dead hours before he was to wed his high school sweetheart, his bride’s heart was broken, and two children lost their father. And these officers’ lives are irrevocably marred by their action and reaction that dangerous night in the line of duty.

It was a tough case.  It was a tough call. It is a tough verdict. But I think it is fair. I do believe justice was served. 

Susan F. Filan, Esq. is an MSNBC senior legal analyst. Prior to joining MSNBC, Filan worked as a prosecutor and trial lawyer for the state of Connecticut.