NEW YORK (AP) _ On the night before his wedding, Sean Bell went to a strip club called Kalua Cabaret for a bachelor party. As he and two friends left early in the morning, they were confronted by undercover officers investigating reports of drugs and prostitution.
The rest of the story varies depending on who's telling it, but every version ends the same way: Bell dying and his friends wounded in a barrage of 50 police bullets outside the club.
Bell, 23, was killed Nov. 25, 2006, hours before he was to marry Nicole Paultre, the mother of his two children.
The three police officers indicted in the shooting go on trial Monday in a case that has sparked protests and debate over excessive force and police conduct in New York.
Detective Michael Oliver fired 31 shots, including the one that killed Bell. Detective Gescard Isnora squeezed off 11 rounds, and Detective Marc Cooper fired four times. Oliver and Isnora have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter; Cooper has pleaded not guilty to reckless endangerment.
Bell's fiancée is expected to be the first witness, and she said she plans to be in court every day.
"I feel like I need to know. I need to know why this happened,'' said Paultre Bell, who had her name legally changed after her fiancé's death. "I wake up one day and my world is turned upside down. I have to know why this happened; my family deserves to know.''
Police union officials and defense lawyers have said the detectives believed Bell and his friends were going to get a gun, though no weapon was found. The officers opened fire after the car the three men were in lurched forward, bumped Isnora and slammed into an unmarked police minivan, authorities said.
The detectives waived their right to a jury trial after an appeals court turned down a defense bid to move the case out of New York City. State Supreme Court Judge Arthur Cooperman will hear the case by himself.
Without a jury to sway, the trial will likely be less theatrical, but court officials still expect big crowds from both sides and a large media presence in the ceremonial hall at Queens State Supreme Court that seats about 190.
Bell's wounded friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, were to testify as witnesses and will not be in the courtroom audience. Guzman still has four bullets in his body and was disabled by the shooting, according to his lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein. Benefield has a rod in his leg where bones were shattered.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys did not want to comment in the days leading up to the trial.
Legal experts said the absence of a jury might help the defendants defuse some of the case's volatility, especially with a 20-year veteran like Cooperman on the bench.
"They don't want to take a chance on a compromised verdict,'' said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "The thought is, a judge can simply stare out into the abyss, bite the bullet and do what has to be done.''
While jurors generally believe that police officers are out to help the public, they're also likely to have sympathy for shooting victims. The result can be a conviction on lesser charges.
Cooperman, 74, has experience trying high-profile police cases. In 1986, he presided over the trial of officers accused of torturing a teenage drug suspect with a stun gun. The officers were convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. He has also presided over trials in which police were the victims.
Oliver and Isnora face up to 25 years in prison if convicted; Cooper faces up to a year on the lesser endangerment count.
Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives' Endowment Association, said negative pretrial publicity prompted the detectives to ask for a bench trial. "The jury pool was poisoned,'' he said.
He cited an advertising campaign featuring Bell's fiancée as a model for Rocawear, a clothing line co-founded by hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, that began running just days before the trial. Palladino said it was a clear attempt to manipulate the public; Guzman's lawyer, Rubenstein, said it had nothing to do with the trial but refused to say how much she was paid.
The detectives' union has argued that the officers were just doing their jobs.
"I have said from the very beginning the shooting was tragic,'' Palladino said. "But they didn't act with criminality in their hearts and in their minds, and I think the proper arena for this is civil court.''
The trial isn't expected to cause the kind of widespread 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. Many New Yorkers, especially Blacks, felt then-Mayor Rudy Giulani wasn't compassionate enough about the Diallo case, and said the shooting spotlighted racist police practices. Thousands marched in protest after the officers were acquitted.
In contrast, current Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in the days after Bell's death that he felt the shooting was "excessive.'' He was praised by residents but criticized by law enforcement for speaking out before the facts were in.
"The thing that's missing in this case is that level of vitriol for City Hall,'' O'Donnell said. "The mayor and the police commissioner have credibility in the city, specifically in the Black community.''
Plus, while Bell and his friends were Black, the officers involved are Hispanic, Black and White.
"The police department is way more diverse now,'' O'Donnell said. "The old story of a bunch of White cops in an all-White department completely insensitive to the city is not true today.''