2008-02-29 / Front Page

Sharp Local Reaction To Bell Trial

By Nicholas Briano

Few people knew the name Sean Bell until his wedding day. Until then, the Far Rockaway resident was just another face in the crowd.

Right after the shooting in 2003, Bell's fiancée, Nicole Paultry Bell, is shown with City Councilman James Sanders and other locals at a press conference in Far Rockaway. Right after the shooting in 2003, Bell's fiancée, Nicole Paultry Bell, is shown with City Councilman James Sanders and other locals at a press conference in Far Rockaway. That all changed, however, when the 23-year-old unarmed man was gunned down by undercover NYPD officers outside a Jamaica strip club where he was being feted by his friends at his bachelor party.

His death and the trial of three of the undercover officers have become national news, and his fiancée has become a has become a celertity through her TV appearances.

Even more than a year after the shootings, emotions run as high as they did on the night he was killed and two of his friends were wounded.

Bell lived with his fiancé at 91 Beach 27 Street in Far Rockaway. On November 25, 2006, he was attending his bachelor party at the Club Kalua in Jamaica when a confrontation with police outside the club ended in gunfire. According to police, Bell and two of his friends, Joseph Guzman, 31 and Trent Benefield, 24, left the club and got into Bell's car. They drove about half a block and turned a corner where, at the intersection of 94 Avenue and Liverpool Street, their car struck an unmarked police minivan carrying several undercover officers.

Bell was reportedly being followed by an undercover officer who was in the club and who later told police officials that he heard one of the men in Bell's group say something about getting a gun.

After hitting the minivan Bell's car backed up and hit the pursuing officer, who was on foot. The car then reversed and hit the van again, according to police reports.

Prosecutors from the Queens District Attorney's Office argued in their opening statement that the police officers, who fired 51 shots at the car, were reckless and committed a crime.

Their defense counsel argued that the cops believed that Bell and his friends were armed and looking for trouble that night.

The police officers, who were refused a change of venue, requested a bench trial. Judge Arthur Cooperman will decide their fate.

The case has sparked much interest in Rockaway and many locals have stated their opinions on the guilt or innocence of the officers.

A number of local politicians and activists spoke to The Wave this week, as the trial progresses into its second week of testimony.

Councilmember James Sanders, Jr., is often outspoken about violence in Far Rockaway and is confident that the trial will provide justice and answers for Bell's family.

"It is good to see the wheels of justice moving," Sanders said. "Hopefully, this trial will bring about healing to the Bell family and the community."

Far Rockaway Congressman Gregory Meeks commented as well when asked if the police acted unjustly.

"Absolutely," Meeks said. "Fifty shots? That's well beyond the point of justification."

Both Meeks and Sanders say Bell's death horrified Far Rockaway and the community is eagerly awaiting justice.

"People were shocked and horrified that something like this could happen," Sanders said. "The family and community wanted answers on how this could have ever happened."

Meeks agrees.

"I think that individuals are hoping for a verdict that is appropriate with justice," Meeks said.

Those answers will come soon as the trial continues and the officers meet their eventual fates, which could include as much as 25 years behind bars.

Meeks says he will be listening very closely to what transpires inside the Queens courtroom.

"I, along with the rest of the community, will be listening attentively to what takes place," Meeks said. "It is hard to believe that 50 shots can be fired and not have anyone guilty of some crime."

The three officers, already guilty in the eyes of many locals, are detectives Michael Oliver, 36, Gescard Isnora, 29, and Marc Cooper, 40.

Oliver and Isnora face 25 years in prison. Oliver, who had been outside the club, fired 31 times, hitting all the victims. Isnora fired 11 times. Cooper, on the other hand, fired only four shots, hitting no one and has been charged with reckless endangerment, which carries a maximum of a year in prison.

The defendants' future will be decided by a judge and not a jury due to the massive amount of negative public opinion the case has attracted. Sanders feels justice will be served regardless of whether a jury decides the outcome.

"Every defendant has the right to a fair trial by judge," Sanders said. "The community is eagerly anticipating justice."

Whether or not the detectives are sent to prison, Sanders still wishes, above all, that the pain caused by the incident can subside and heal.

"It is a sad day and I wish we would not have this problem," Sanders said. "But rather, Bell should have been celebrating his one year anniversary with his wife and children."

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