Three New York City policemen were acquitted on charges of shooting Sean Bell, a 23-year-old African-American male, in Nov. 2006. The controversial acquittal has sparked outrage among African-American community leaders. (O. Winspear-Salazar)
The family of a black man gunned down by police hours before his wedding pondered its next move Saturday after a judge acquitted three officers involved in the shooting.
The verdict handed down Friday drew cries of shame from the courthouse gallery and muted victory cheers from officials.
After weeks of hearing testimony, Justice Arthur Cooperman pronounced not-guilty verdicts against three police detectives who had opened fire in November 2006 on Sean Bell, 23, as he left a nightclub in the borough of Queens after celebrating his stag night.
Bell died on the spot and two of his friends were wounded. An investigation showed that none of the victims was armed.
Two of the detectives, Gescard Isnora and Michael Oliver, faced up to 25 years in jail on charges of manslaughter while the third, detective Marc Cooper, faced one year in jail on the lesser charge of reckless endangerment.
Cries of "Shame on you" rang out in the Queens courthouse, packed with spectators including Bell's fiancee and family, when the controversial verdicts were read out.
Oliver fired 31 shots in the incident, Isnora fired 11, and Cooper fired four times, according to testimony.
Cooper apologized to Bell's family following the verdict.
"I'd like to say sorry to the Bell family for the tragedy," an emotional Cooper told a news conference.
He then gave thanks for his acquittal.
"I'd like to thank the Lord, my savior, for today. This has started my life back," said Cooper.
At the same news conference, the head of the New York City Detectives Endowment Association, the union representing the officers, hailed the verdict.
"I stood at this microphone many months ago and said that this union would not blink; we would mount a vigorous defense for these detectives and we did that," union chief Michael Palladino said.
"We are relieved today, and how do I spell relief? N-o-t g-u-i-l-t-y," said Palladino, borrowing from a popular US advertising slogan.
Cooper, Isnora and Oliver were part of a detail of undercover police who had been staking out the Queens nightclub where Bell had gone with friends the night before his wedding.
The New York police officers told the court that they fired their guns after Bell's car nearly ran them over.
Before announcing the verdict, Cooperman said that the defense had failed to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt that each defendant was not justified" in opening fire.
In an editorial published Saturday, The New York Times called the verdict "stunning."
"As all New Yorkers should, we respect Justice Cooperman’s verdict, but we do not believe all questions of accountability were resolved," the paper opined.
The Department of Justice announced it will conduct an independent review of the case.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg deplored the loss of life but stood by the court's decision.
"No verdict could ever end the grief that those who knew and loved Sean Bell suffer," Bloomberg said in a statement. "Though not everyone will agree with the verdicts and opinions issued by US courts, we accept their authority."
Democratic White House contender Barack Obama, who is vying to become the country's first black president, appealed for residents of New York to remain calm and respect the judge's decision.
"Resorting to violence to express displeasure over a verdict is something that is completely unacceptable and counterproductive," Obama was quoted by the Washington Post as telling reporters in Indiana.
"The judge has made his ruling and we're a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down," he said.
African-American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson called the killing a "massacre."
"And what we have seen today is a travesty of justice," Jackson said.
Some 1,000 police had been deployed outside the Queens courthouse to quell any violence after the verdict, but the area remained calm.
People shouted "Murderers!" as the three officers left the courthouse.
Outside, George Mack, 48, an anti-violence activist, insisted the verdict was unjust.
"Bell was an innocent man," he said. "This was murder."
Date created : 2008-04-26