Posted April 15, 2008 – After more than six weeks of testimony in yet another racially explosive case involving the shooting of unarmed Black men by New York Police officers, a lone judge must now determine whether the death of 23-year-old Sean Bell and wounding of his two friends was merely an accident or the wanton act of reckless officers.
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The three detectives accused of blasting the three young Black men with a blizzard of bullets in November 2006 – Gescard F. Isnora, 29; Marc Cooper, 40; and Michael Oliver, 36 – waived their right to a jury trial, believing that they would never find an impartial panel of their peers in a Queens courtroom. Instead, their fate is in the hands of State Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Cooperman, who will likely deliberate over the next several days.
Isnora, Hispanic, and Oliver, White, are charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter and assault. Cooper is on trial for reckless endangerment. In closing arguments Monday morning, attorneys representing the accused offered their emotional rationales for why their clients should not be found guilty. Paul P. Martin, representing Cooper, a Black detective, who’s charged with reckless endangerment, said that the blame for the shooting lies with Joseph Guzman, Bell’s friend who was shot 16 times. The statement drew murmurs from observers in the courtroom.
Isnora testified earlier that he heard Guzman say, “Get my gun,” a statement that Guzman and Trent Benefield, the other victim, deny. “[Guzman’s] the reason why we’re here today,” Martin said, calling Guzman a “thug.” Martin also panned the prosecutor, who he said put on a weak case against the detectives.
“I really started to question this system — the justice system, which I’ve depended on, relied on,” Martin said. “I’ve questioned how the prosecution could come before you and say that Detective Marc Cooper was guilty of anything.”
Anthony L. Ricco, who is Black, spoke on behalf of his client, Isnora. He said that his client has been looked at as a traitor to his community.
“What did Gescard Isnora do so that the whole community turns their back on him?” Mr. Ricco said. “He’s putting his life on the line every day for my kids, for your kids, for everybody else’s kids.” He said that Isnora only fired because he thought he was under attack. Not only did Bell try to run him over with his Nissan Altima, Ricco said, but he thought Guzman was reaching for a gun. "What in the world was he supposed to be thinking?" Ricco asked the judge.
The prosecution says that the police showed little regard for Bell and his associates, a claim that has been shared widely by Black and religious leaders, and community activists in New York . They say that, even though only one of the officers was White, police officers – especially in New York City – have a history of erasing Black young lives with impunity.
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