2008-04-11 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

One Line From Bell Trial Tells The Story
Commentary By Howard Schwach

In the six weeks that the prosecution presented its case against the three police officers who tragically and accidentally shot and killed Rockaway resident Sean Bell, there have been thousands of questions and answers and hundreds of pages of recorded transcripts.

To me, one line is telling about how both the police officers and the Bell bachelor party got intertwined in such a way that the shooting became nearly inevitable.

Joseph Guzman was on the stand. Guzman, a friend of Bell's, was sitting next to him on the front seat. Bell was driving, although the testimony shows that he was both drunk and near-blind in one eye.

Guzman, another Rockaway resident, has twice been convicted of felonies within the past several years, one of the convictions for selling crack within 1,000 feet of an elementary school. Guzman was also busted for an armed robbery, but was later allowed to plead the charge down to a misdemeanor because of a technicality in his arrest.

As defense counsel cross-examined him, he reportedly became more and more belligerent on the stand.

He kept referring to Detective Gescard Isnora as "Kid."

One of the lawyers asked Guzman why he kept referring to a grown man, an NYPD detective, as "Kid."

"I don't have to respect nobody on that side as a man," Guzman responded.

What did Guzman mean by "nobody on that side"?

He was not talking about the defense side, he was talking about the police."

What he really meant was, "I don't have to respect no cop as a man."

That is the attitude that got Bell killed and Guzman shot 16 times by police bullets.

The police are not "men," and therefore, in Guzman's world as well as in Bell's world, they count for less than nothing.

So, when the drunken men in Bell's car, who admittedly had drugs with them in the vehicle, were ordered to stop by people who I believe then knew to be police officers, they tried to speed away, first hitting the police van and then backing up towards the police officers who were coming at them from their rear.

When one of the lawyers asked Guzman about his gunpoint robbery, Guzman answered by saying, "This needs to happen to your family."

When Guzman was asked whether or not he said anything about getting a gun when he was challenged by another man standing outside the strip club, he retorted. "Where ya from? Where ya from?"

Bell did not deserve to die in a hail of gunfire, but it is clear to me that the actions of the men in the car were clearly contributory to what happened to them and that the police were not criminally liable for their death.

As Andrea Peyser said in her New York Post column, "With witnesses like these, who needs criminals?"

Both Guzman and Troy Benefield, another passenger in the car, cast doubt on their contention that the detectives, who were dressed in plainclothes, never identified themselves as police officers.

Earlier in the trial, however, others testified that the men saw a blackwhite duo trailing them and immediately "made them" as detectives.

From the testimony, I believe that the men in the car knew that detectives were challenging them, but they had drugs in the car, they were all drunk, and they didn't consider the cops to be anybody important.

That's why they attempted to drive away and that's why they drove towards the cops.

It's hard to believe anything that Guzman said, particularly since a lot of what he said contradicted the testimony he gave earlier to detectives.

And, because he has a pending lawsuit against the city, is in his best interest to "prove" that the cops shot at him for no reason, or at least were so reckless that they deserve to be punished.

He is also getting a "salary" from Al Sharpton's National Action Network, as are the other victims and Bell's former fiancée. They don't call it a salary, and they don't call it a bribe, but giving them money prior to their testimony certainly provides that appearance.

I was not at the trial. Denis Hamill, the respected columnist for the Daily News was there, however, and his writing is as riveting as the trial is reputed to be.

"[The defense counsel Anthony] Ricco tore into Guzman, using ghetto street idoms, and a methodical referral to Guzman' grand jury testimony that contradicted in a material way much of what he was saying at the trial.

"Guzman steamed, grew belligerent, shifted in his chair, wiped his face, and raised his voice. At one point, he jabbed his finger at Ricco, demanding 'Where you from? Where you from?'"

"And telling the Harlem-bred, African American defense lawyer with the Italian name that a 'bluff' like his wouldn't work in Far Rock.

"Now it was a street fight.

"But in front of a jury of one, he'd played right into Ricco's hands. Citing Guzman's courtroom rage, Ricco suggested that's what he must have been like that night in front of the Kalua Cabaret, where others have testified that a heated argument raged with a guy in a black SUV about a gun.

'"I'm not bluffin,'" Ricco shouted, suggesting that's what Guzman said to the SUV guy. 'I'm not bluffin. I'll go get my gun.'

"Ricco insisted Guzman said words to that effect in front of Isnora outside the Kalua. Ricco said Isnora then followed Guzman and Bell around the corner into Liverpool Street, where the shooting occurred.

"By the end of Ricco's cross, Guzman gave conflicting testimony about where Isnora appeared from, who caused the collision between Sean Bell's car and a police undercover van, and whether Isnora wore a hat that night.

"On the street, you wouldn't want to mess with Big Joe from Far Rock.

"In the courtroom, he was outmatched by the street smart lawyer from Harlem."

The prosecution rested on Friday. Most of the pundits who were at the trial and write for the daily papers believe that the prosecution made the defense case and that the trial is all but over.

With a bench trial, however, it is never over until the judge makes the ruling and bangs his gavel.

Judge Arthur Cooperman, who is hearing the evidence, will listen to the defense, schedule a conference for final motions, take those motions into advisement and then make his decision, which will be binding, because there is no jury in this case.

What will happen when he does? Should he rule in favor of the officers, as I believe he will Al Sharpton and the others will find a way to make a racial issue out of it even though most of the cops on the stakeout that night were black or Hispanic.

There is no issue in this city that Sharpton and Charles Barron cannot make into a racial issue, even when minorities are the only one's involved. That is racism in its classic definintion -- making decisions based solely on race.

Should the judge rule for the prosecution, it will send a message to cops that they put themselves at risk if they get involved when they think a gun is present, and that is not a message you want to send cops, especially at a time when the murder rate in New York City is climbing once again. What did these cops do? Every instinct they had told them that a gun was present in that car. There was every indication from the settting and the events that took place just prior to the tragic incident that there was going to be gun-involved problems. They took action, and that is all they did.

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