12-09-2016  8:59 pm      •     

NEW YORK -- The police officers have told their side of the story. The surviving victims gave their version.
Now it's up to a Queens grand jury to decide whether any of the five officers broke the law in the fatal shooting of bridegroom Sean Bell and the wounding of his two friends. Lawyers involved in the case say a decision could come sometime this week.
Over the past three months, 23 grand jurors have listened to more than 60 witnesses testify about a complex case in which four detectives and one police officer unleashed a barrage of 50 bullets on the three Black men, all unarmed, as they were in their car leaving a bachelor party at a Queens strip club at dawn on Nov. 25. The killing of Bell hours before his wedding sparked community outrage and raised questions about police tactics.
Three of the shooters are Black and two White. All have been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the grand jury probe.
Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown, whose office is heading the investigation, has assured both sides in the emotionally charged case of a fair and thorough investigation.
The closed-door proceedings inside a Queens office building have produced thousands of pages of transcripts, as fat as four stacked telephone books. Hundreds of exhibits have been presented: maps, crime scene diagrams, 911 tapes, videotapes, transcripts of police communications, ballistic and toxicology tests, hospital and personnel reports.
The final step will be for prosecutors to instruct the jurors the charges they can consider: second-degree murder, manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide stemming from the death of Bell, and attempted murder, assault or reckless endangerment in connection with the serious wounding of his companions, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman.
Benefield, Guzman and other members of the bachelor party testified that the party had broken up and they were on their way home when -- without warning -- the officers opened fire.
"We didn't even have a pair of scissors in the car," Guzman said shortly after he was released from a hospital. "I don't know what started this. We did nothing."
The officers, who were all in plainclothes, tell a much different story: While conducting an undercover operation at the club, they claim they overheard conversations that convinced them the men were retrieving a gun from the car to settle a dispute. The officer who first confronted the men, Gescard Isnora, has said through his lawyer that he identified himself and fired 11 rounds only after Bell slammed the car into an unmarked police vehicle.
Another detective, Mike Oliver, fired 31 shots, reloading once. Tests show that a bullet fired from his gun killed Bell, according to law enforcement officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Oliver testified Friday, becoming the last of the five officers to tell his story to the grand jury. Oliver, 35, had never fired his gun in the line of duty despite making 600 arrests in his 12-year career, said Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives' Endowment Association.
Of the remaining detectives, Marc Cooper shot five rounds and Paul Headley once. Officer Michael Carey fired three bullets.
Though no weapon was recovered from Bell's car, authorities say prosecutors will instruct the grand jurors that they must consider whether any of the police were "reasonably justified" in firing their weapons -- the overriding issue in the case.
Under state law, police can use deadly force if they have a "reasonable" belief that their lives or those of civilians are in immediate danger, even if they were wrong in their belief.
At least 16 of the 23 jurors must be present for a vote. At least 12 must agree that there is legally sufficient evidence and reasonable cause to believe that the officers committed a crime before they can hand up an indictment.

 

 

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